The hare and the tortoise

Article by Adrian Mourby

As the composer of two tuneful Italian one-act operas, it seems to have been Pietro Mascagni’s fate to be paired.  Alongside Ruggero’s Leoncavallo he is lauded as composer of half that great operatic standby Cav & Pag, while his Zanetto has been happily teamed on more than one occasion with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.  This twinning with Leoncavallo has reinforced Mascagni’s reputation as a composer of ‘verismo’: both Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci purport to reflect ordinary Italian low-life lived in real time, both hinge on adultery (an obligatory feature of Italian realism), and both end in a fatal knifing.

The Puccini pairing is equally neat.  Both operas are set in or around historical Florence, both focus on the acquisition of wealth, both pit love and money against each other, although one turns on scoundrelly behaviour at its denouement while the other relies on self-sacrifice.  But Mascagni’s link with Puccini is rather stronger than that with Leoncavallo.  The two Tuscan lads were twinned by the fates as well as the muses, and for decades their lives ran in a curious parallel.  Both came from families without any great wealth; both attended the Milan Conservatory, and both failed to shine there.  Mascagni was expelled in his second year because he kept failing to submit his assignments, while Puccini was just plain lazy and easily distracted by women; his first two operas were not successes.  But at this point the fate of the two men diverges, for when they entered opera competitions the results were very different.  Puccini competed unsuccessfully with Le villi in 1882, while Mascagni had an enormous success with Cavalleria rusticana in 1888.

But the great irony of Italian opera is that despite his brilliant early success Mascagni never again made such an impact, while Puccini learned his lessons and adapted.  By the time Mascagni’s sixth opera, Zanetto, was premiered in Pesaro (1896), Puccini had proved himself the true successor to Verdi with just two works, Manon Lescaut (1893) and La bohème (1896).  The eclipse was complete when, after Puccini’s early death in 1924, it was Mascagni who put his weight behind a project to commemorate the maestro with a performance of La bohème at Puccini’s old home in Torre del Lago.  In 1930 he conducted the inaugural performance of what is now known to the world as the Festival Torre del Lago Puccini.

But the parallels between the lives of the two men run deeper still.  Compare the creative background of Zanetto and its twin from the Puccini stable, Gianni Schicchi (1918).  After the runaway success that followed Cavalleria rusticana’s Roman premiere in 1890, Mascagni blitzed the world with new works –and a few he had already written and kept up his composerly sleeve.  In the space of five years he premiered L’amico Fritz (October 1891), I Rantzau (November 1892), Guglielmo Ratcliff (February 1895), Silvano (March 1895), and Zanetto.  These were operas variously in one, two, three and four acts, and for a number of them Mascagni also wrote the libretto.

It is easy to see now that Mascagni was casting around and trying everything to see how he could follow up the remarkable success of Cavalleria rusticana.  It was a frenetic, almost desperate working method that only increased in tempo after Puccini’s Bohème premiered in February 1896, distracting critical attention from the Zanetto premiere a month later.  The diabetic womaniser from Lucca (diabetes probably contributed to Puccini’s bouts of torpor) had in his slow way stolen his friend’s considerable thunder, and Mascagni never got it back.

But Giacomo Puccini also lost his way.  Compared to the mercurial Mascagni, the Luccan may have been a dogged success-machine, clear-headed about his librettos, canny in his marketing and ruthless when it came to manipulating his audience’s emotions, but Gianni Schicchi was very much an attempt to get back on course after a period of mid-music crisis.  Puccini’s composing menopause occurred much later than Mascagni’s and had its roots in domestic problems, rather than a runaway early success.  After the wonder years that saw the birth of three of the most popular operas ever written, La bohème, Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904), Puccini hit an artistic block.  Recent research into letters discovered in Lucca suggest that a domestic scandal centring on Puccini’s involvement with a woman who turned out to be a prostitute – coupled with his reluctant marriage to long-term mistress, Elvira Gemingnani, and Elvira’s persecution of a servant girl she suspected of having an affair with the composer – wrecked the lakeside tranquillity that Puccini enjoyed at Torre del Lago.  The suicide of the servant girl and the subsequent court-case that would have sent Elvira to prison if Puccini had not paid the family off coincided with a creative block that ended only with La fanciulla del West (1910-1912) an opera that sounds like Puccini but lacks some vital ingredient when measured against his three big triumphs.

Five years after Fanciulla, Puccini followed up with the slight La rondine (1917), a piece that barely justifies its three acts, and then Il trittico (1918): an unusual undertaking, three one-act operas that directors have struggled to unify around one uniting idea.  Puccini had been considering a trio of one-act operas since 1904: the success of Cavalleria rusticana had preoccupied him, although his initial intention was to base all three operas on tales from Dante’s Divine Comedy.  In the event only Gianni Schicchi came out of the great poem.

It’s a noteworthy coincidence that these two one-act operas, both set in Tuscany’s glorious mediæval past, were written over 20 years apart by local composers trying to find their way back to the secret of their early successes.  Puccini’s Schicchi takes a tale from Florence in 1299; Mascagni’s Zanetto one from the Tuscan countryside during the 14th century.  Both men were creating their own historical landscape.  It’s something all artists do; the past is never constant.

Verdi saw all history as a struggle for nationhood, even though he was very often writing about epochs in which the notion of nation-states would have made no sense whatsoever to his dynastic protagonists.  Wagner’s mediæval Nuremberg, Eisenach and Antwerp were not presented as historical documentary but as he wished them to be.  When composers of the Enlightenment wrote about Ancient Rome (which they did a lot) they were actually addressing the courts of 18th century Europe in the hope of civilising them.

Puccini turned to a rumbustious tale spun out of a glancing reference in Dante; Mascagni’s source was the Italian translation of a late 19th century French play by the verse dramatist François Coppée.  Both composers were using the excuse of the past to create their own fantasy landscapes.  Puccini’s Tuscany comes with overtones of Verdi’s Falstaff; Mascagni prefers a mythic landscape devoted to courtly love.

Both were also working on musical and narrative experiments.  Mascagni, who could put a whole community on stage, restricted his musical world to two female voices and orchestra while Puccini, who had built his reputation on tear-jerkers that invariably left the heroine dead, killed off nobody in this comedy and rewarded his heroine not just with a happy ending but a much-needed dowry.

Of the two Zanetto is the shorter; very short indeed at only 40 minutes.  Gianni Schicchi – always intended as part of a triple bill – runs to 55.  Zanetto is almost a sketch, a narrative that gets off the ground just in time to start descending towards its finale, the musical equivalent of a flight between Paris and Brussels.

The story is set outside Florence where Silvia, a wealthy and therefore successful courtesan, steps onto her balcony to sing of her boredom with life and love.  For years she has been besieged by suitors but has repulsed them all, convinced it is her destiny to remain single.  Yet she recalls a youth she once saw, the only person to whom she could ever have given her heart.  At that very moment such a youth, a minstrel, appears below.  Silvia descends to talk to Zanetto, who tells her he has heard the beautiful courtesan Silvia lives nearby.  Zanetto likes the idea of wooing someone so rich and settling down happily.  Silvia weighs up her last chance of happiness against the boy’s idealised vision, and tells him that she is but a poor innkeeper and he must look elsewhere for his Silvia.  As Zanetto wanders musically off in search of the golden opportunity he has unwittingly just lost Silvia declares: “Blessed art thou, o Love! Now can I weep again!”

The piece is tuneful but never really ignites.  Critics have seen it as an oddity, a study for two female voices, little more than an exchange of arias and far too short to captivate.  “Pleasant but not memorable” seems to be the general verdict, which is curious given what many composers have been able to achieve with an orchestra in 40 minutes.

By contrast Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi does a lot in 55 minutes, including giving us ‘O mio babbino caro’, the three-minute tune that so captivated British audiences when it was used in the Merchant Ivory film of E.M. Forster’s Florentine romance, A Room with a View.

Whereas Mascagni’s melodrama turns on a wealthy woman denying herself love because money might spoil her idealised feelings for Zanetto, Puccini’s characters are all about the money.  The old Florentine businessman Buoso Donati has died, and has left all his money to a monastery.  Horrified, his grasping family grudgingly enlist the assistance of a parvenu huckster, Gianni Schicchi.  Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta, has been spurned by the family, who think her an unsuitable wife for young Rinuccio, but she nevertheless persuades Schicchi to act for them.  Schicchi arranges to impersonate Buoso long enough to forge a will for his new patrons.  Happy to do something both immoral and illegal, Schicchi goes one better and nominates himself as heir to old Buoso so that Lauretta has a suitable dowry to marry Rinuccio.  The family, being implicated, don’t dare expose his trickery.  Puccini’s libretto is taken from Canto 30 of Dante’s Inferno, where Schicchi is punished in a pretty extreme circle of hell.  There is nothing noble about Puccini’s view of his characters, except perhaps Lauretta, who makes the case for love in her aria, and Schicchi himself is somewhat exonerated, asking the audience to agree that no better use could be found for Buoso’s wealth.  Il trittico was a qualified success, though Gianni Schicchi was very warmly received by public and critics.  This vivacious little opera marked a real turning point: out of his own domestic hell Puccini achieved something in Schicchi that propelled him towards the towering success of Turandot (composed 1920-24), an opera that proved to the world he was wholly back on form, though he died without completing its last act.

The parallel with Mascagni is telling.  Just six years after his one-act experiment Puccini died on top form, with Pietro Mascagni one of those organising tributes to Italy’s undisputed maestro.  Mascagni himself lived on 48 years after the Zanetto experiment, constantly reinventing himself, trying to compete with Puccini and trying to repeat the success of Cavalleria rusticana.  Despite 14 subsequent operas and one operetta, he never did.  Writing about the Emperor Nero, hero of his last opera Nerone, Mascagni commented: “His life was that of an artist – a failure if you will, but an artist.  Indeed, in this failure, his aspiration for things beyond his reach, lies the interesting drama of his existence.”  It could be his own epitaph.

As well as writing about operas, Adrian Mourby occasionally also directs them.  From the end of 2012 he will be working as dramaturge at the Vienna State Opera.  His latest novel, Wishdaughter, is about the controversial legacy of Richard Wagner.