The Italian composer Pietro Mascagni hardly qualifies as a one-hit wonder, but you would never guess it to see just one work, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” turn up season after season. A few other Mascagni operas, like “L’Amico Fritz” and “Iris,” hover at the periphery of the standard repertory. The rest have fallen into neglect, save for the efforts of specialist companies.
One such outfit, Teatro Grattacielo, celebrated its 15th anniversary at Avery Fisher Hall on Monday night with a concert performance of “Il Piccolo Marat,” Mascagni’s 14th opera, heard in its United States premiere. Completed in 1921 and successfully staged in Rome that year, this three-act work is a classic rescue plot set in revolutionary France.
Although Mascagni’s characteristic lyricism is everywhere in evidence, signs of a striking modernity start with the hauntingly dissonant opening chords. The score is filled with gorgeous interludes and evocative effects.
L’Orco (“the Ogre”), a brutal jailer, holds captive the Princess Fleury, whose son, as the Little Marat, infiltrates the Marats to save her. In the process he is smitten with the Ogre’s abused niece, Mariella, and determines to rescue her as well. He is aided by a nameless carpenter who has grown weary of building instruments of torture for the Ogre. A happy ending comes at a suitably bloody price. Teatro Grattacielo also required a bit of rescuing: the singers portraying Marat and the Ogre had to be replaced within weeks of the performance. Before the opera began on Monday night, Duane D. Printz, the company’s director, announced yet another casualty: the baritone scheduled to sing the carpenter had withdrawn because of illness. As Marat, the tenor Richard Crawley sang with power and urgency, though, perhaps understandably, his efforts lacked finesse. The soprano Paula Delligatti brought an attractive sound to Mariella. Brian Jauhiainen, a bass, sounded coarse as the Ogre but compensated with appropriately oversize characterization. Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee, a lyrical baritone engaged to sing several tiny roles, had a substantial success in adding the carpenter to his list. Among the many smaller parts, another baritone, Joshua Benaim, stood out for his tone and power as a soldier. The Long Island University Chorus and Cantori New York were rousing and untidy by turns. The strongest impression was made by David Wroe, Teatro Grattacielo’s music director, who drew an urgent, polished performance from the orchestra
Steve Smith, The New York Times
On April 13, at Avery Fisher Hall, the show – Teatro Gratticielo’s concert performance of Mascagni’s Il Piccolo Marat – went on, and was greeted, at evening’s end, with a standing ovation.
The world premiere, in 1921, took fifty curtain calls. Why, then, did Marat become so rare? I’m told the Grove Dictionary of the Opera blames its failure to hold audiences on its Fascist librettist. This does not make sense when reading (and following) the libretto, which is as passionate a hymn to freedom from tyranny as Fidelio or Tosca. Too, there is a rather beautiful love duet, a melodious lullaby that recalls the peaceful Easter music of Cavalleria Rusticana, and a tense climax that lures the audience into the emotions of the three “good” characters as, desperately, they assault the unkillable Ogre (English for Orco, the character’s nickname – so that’s where Tolkien found the word!).
As is customary in verismo, a school that matured as the bourgeoisie seized political power and its echo in the arts from aristocratic predecessors, the chorus is a main character in this opera, easily swayed and ruthless in its bloodthirsty support of hero or villain by turns. The Cantori New York and the Long Island University Chorus howled gloriously under the direction of Mark Shapiro; we were right at home, ringside to mob rule.
As is also the rule in operas about the French Revolution (think Andrea Chenier or Madame Sans-Gêne), there were innumerable small parts – which proved convenient when one singer of three of them, Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee, earned a needed promotion to the almost-lead role of the gentle Carpenter, not too sensitive to design death ships but queasy when the Ogre wants him to build them. Joshua Benaim was worthy and forthright as a Soldier sent to investigate the Ogre – a by no means easy role, designed for a Pertile or Del Monaco sound, to give heroic voice to the Revolution during the opera’s early scenes, when the title character, the Piccolo Marat, must conceal his real feelings to win the Ogre’s confidence. Alfred Barclift and Hugo Vera showed promise onstage playing offstage voices. (Versatility is the name of this game.)
Richard Crawley, in the title role, effectively concealed his noble self and warmed up the while in order to sing a passionate duet with Paula Delligatti, as Mariella, the Ogre’s unhappy niece, and then burst out like a Cavaradossi “Vittoria” when the time came. Brian Jauhiainen was less overwhelming as the monstrous Ogre. Neither gentleman indicated, however, by any hesitancy or misstep, how recently they had first encountered this music: these were trim, professional performances and we were all very grateful to have them. Delligatti has an expressive spinto, perhaps less than ideal to the explosions of a Butterfly or Tosca but probably ideal for Liú or Maddalena. Her lullaby, perhaps the opera’s only excerptable number (another reason for the work’s obscurity), was serene and charming.
Conductor David Wroe, who perhaps rehearsed with the singers who cancelled, rather bashed his way through the score. It’s a large score, all right, and the music should be loud, but not holding back in a hall as orchestrally focused as Fisher is a disservice to the singers, who were often inaudible at the opera’s high points.
John Yohalem, Opera Today