Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera ended a run of six consecutive performances of Mascagni’s 1905 opera Amica on October 12. It was presented in its original French with Italian surtitles. Word about the opera’s lack of content must have gotten around town because the final performance was so sparsely attended that the performers may have outnumbered the audience. I’ve never attended a performance that was as deserted as this one. The production was co-produced by the l’Opèra di Montecarlo (the site of work’s world premiere) and il Teatro Carlo Goldoni di Livorno (Mascagni’s home town). Thus there was a reason, albeit slender, for these two companies to mount a new production of a largely and justly forgotten work, but how Rome allowed itself to be part of this operatic waste of time is not apparent to me. Perhaps the city has a soft spot for Mascagni as it was the site of the world premiere of the composer’s only success Cavalleria Rusticana.
Amica was written to a libretto by Paul de Choudens who used the pseudonym Paul Bérel. If you were associated with this project you’d also use a pseudonym. Originally intended as a vehicle for Emma Calvé, Geraldine Farrar performed the first performance with only five days of preparation after Calvé withdrew. The French diva must have panicked after seeing the score and the libretto. Supposedly, Farrar scored so great a success with the role (the audience must have been distracted by roulette) that she was hired by the Paris Opera where she was seen by the Met’s general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza who brought her to New York where she was a huge success. The only thing wrong with this story is that Farrar made her Met debut in 1906 while Gatti didn’t take over the house until 1908.
Amica is not only slight in content but in length as well lasting little more than 70 minutes which was too long for me even if I did get a 30% discount on the tickets. The setting is the Piedmont Alps around 1900. Amica lives with her uncle, Camoine. Uncle C has has also raised two orphan brothers – Giorgio (tenor) and Rinaldo (baritone). Rinaldo has been thrown out of the family manse for being a pain in the ass. Camoine wants to marry Maddalena a mezzo and who thus is insecure. She wants everybody out of the house. Camoine thinks the best solution is to force Amica to marry Giorgio, but she loves Rinaldo and runs away with him at the end of the first act. Here’s where you know something is really wrong. A verismo opera where the soprano runs off with the baritone. In this production this disconnect was mitigated as the baritone looked like a tenor; he resembled a beach ball. The tenor was slim. Thus the soprano’s confusion was made more plausible. In the second act Giorgio catches up with the runaway lovers atop a mountain and is shocked insensate when he learns that his rival is his brother. Amica has neglected to tell Rinaldo that she was supposed to marry his brother. Doing what any baritone would in this situation Rinaldo drops Amica and goes back to town. Amica loses her mind and throws herself off the mountain. Giorgio who has come to shouts “Accursed love”, and the opera ends. It sounds better than it is.
The opera begins with some pastoral mood music which contains little of interest. The rest of the act contains almost melodies. The music sounds as if a tune is around the corner, but the corner never gets turned. The closest to a scene of interest is the duet between Amica and Camoine in which the former begs the latter not to force her to marry a tenor.
The second and final act begins with a busy orchestral introduction that lasts almost as long as the rest of the act. Like the opening of the first act it goes nowhere, though it gets pretty loud at times. It’s accompanied by a monochrome movie of alpine panoramas and a man and a woman riding two horses to certain deaths at the rate they were going. It was the most interesting part of the show.
One can sense how desperate Mascagni must have been to find a tune that could come close to what Puccini was turning out with repetitive ease. Since opera companies are frantic to come up with something different from endless repetitions of Aida and Boheme and since nobody living seems to be able to write an even mediocre opera, or at least one that anyone might wish to see more than once, I can understand why they turn to rarely performed operas by well known composers. But with Le Villi and Edgar almost never performed why perform Amica? Puccini’s first two operas have real melodies and are worth hearing more than once.
The performance was professional, but little more. Patrizia Oriciani sang the title role. She had no trouble conveying the hysteria that characterizes most of Amica’s personality. Though on pitch throughout the evening her voice is rather dry and shrill. Maurizio Comencini was the rejected tenor. His part offers little opportunity to impress. His voice was small and forced. Alberto Mastromarino was the beach ball baritone. He has a loud, but gruff voice. He spent all of his time ogling the conductor as if the hounds of hell were about to devour him and only a baton could keep them at bay. The best singing was done by baritone Marcello Lippi who sang the comprimario role of the wicked step-father Camoine. If looks could kill Maestro Anotonino Fogliani would not have made it alive past the first act. But being stared at didn’t phase him and he conducted with power and poise getting what little there was out of Mascagni’s anemic score. His orchestra played very well. The house’s acoustics are splendid making every performer easy to hear.
Amazingly the sets and costumes were appropriate for the time and place specified in the libretto. What’s Europe coming to? There’s a commercial recording of this opera available. I wouldn’t advise buying it.
A bit of cultural trivia. The lobby of the Vienna State Opera is flanked by busts of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. The foyer of the Rome opera has busts of Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and Beniamino Gigli at either end. The Opera House is on the Piazza Beniamino Gigli.
I don’t understand why a review of an opera performance has to be so full of spite, but here are a few points that you may find of interest:
* Amica can be seen as a transitional work between Iris/Le maschere and Isabeau/Parisina. Nonetheless, in Amica, Mascagni develops and experiments at all levels, including orchestrally, harmonically, melodically, and in his constant search for a perfect match between text and music. For these reasons, I find it extremely enjoyable. Of particular interest: the long intermezzo, and some of Mascagni’s most daring tenor arias, like “Pourquoi garder ce silence obstiné”. Nobody has ever composed anything like this.
* All of Mascagni’s operas put a lot of pressure on tenors. His operas are easily ruined by the lack of an outstanding tenor (as is usually the case these days).
* Mascagni was certainly desperate for a libretto at the time of Amica. He said as much in his letters. Much of the issue comes down to the rivalry between Ricordi and Sonzogno in Italy. So when Choudens proposed Amica, Mascagni jumped on the occasion. Consequently, the libretto (and plot) are not the best part of Amica.
* If there is one thing Mascagni never had to envy Puccini, it is his melodic inspiration! Mascagni’s art of melody evolved over his career, but you always find melody in his music, getting more and more subtle and veiled as you reach Parisina, his maturity masterpiece. So if you are looking for the catchy tunes of Cav in Amica, of course you will be disappointed. But think that even Wagner had tunes in his early operas, and he moved past that.
* There are two commercial recordings of Amica: one on Kicco, recorded in studio and sung in Italian (the singing is awful, and the orchestra and conducting rather good), and a new recording made in Martina Franca last year (more of a provincial peformance). Neither does justice to Mascagni’s work.
* To better understand where Mascagni and his music stand, I strongly recommend reading the excellent biography written by Alan Mallach, “Mascagni and his Operas”. It is the best written so far, and should help appreciate Mascagni’s music, which is vastly misunderstood.