September 4 – 9th, 2007.
Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne.
Composer: Pietro Mascagni & Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Greg Hocking & Rick Prakhoff.
Director: Hugh Halliday.
Roy Best and Emily Burke have sung to an audience of a million people. But when they take the stage at the Athenaeum Theatre on Saturday September 1 they will realise an ambition they’ve held since childhood: a new career, professional performers in a fully staged operatic season. Melbourne Opera has cast both in principal roles in its double bill presented over five performances at The Athenaeum Theatre in September.
Melbourne Opera’s double bill of two of the greatest verismo operas contrasts the cloistered world of Sister Angelica and the brutal machismo of rural Sicily, but both operas share one thing: passion. Director Hugh Halliday says the double bill will give audiences a unique treat: a seldom seen Puccini, and Mascagni’s dramatic masterpiece, together at the one performance.
Melbourne Opera’s double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Suor Angelica combines a very famous composer’s little-known work with a little-known composer’s only famous work!
Think Puccini and immediately one thinks of Madama Butterfly, La Boheme or possibly Tosca. If pushed an operalover could probably also name Turandot and Manon Lescaut and at a pinch The Girl of the Golden West. For only a few would Suor Angelica come to mind. Yet when viewing a list including L’Amico Fritz, La Maschere, Isabeau and Il piccolo Marat, even the most enthusiastic opera-lover is not likely to link them with the name Piero Mascagni, who today is known only as the composer of Cavalleria Rusticana. Indeed for many young people this opera would have been an introduction to the art form. So often is it paired with Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci that the two are often simply known as Cav and Pag.
As one act pieces both Suor Angelica and Cavalleria Rusticana are usually presented with at least one other opera to form an evenings entertainment. Suor Angelica was in fact written as part of a triple bill, Il Trittico, which comprises Il Tabarro, Gianni Schicchi with Suor Angelica as the centrepiece.
Trittico means a triptych, a panel of 3 paintings, which are hinged together and reflect some common theme. It was Puccini’s intention to use his operas to represent different aspect of life, although death is the shared ingredient of all of them. Apart from that the plots and style of each opera is very different. Il Tabarro (the cloak) is opera verissimo, set on a barge moored in the river Seine, it is a violent revenge thriller. Gianni Schicchi is a romp telling of the machinations of a group of relatives of a dying rich man who scheme to gain his fortune for themselves. Written to be performed as the second of these, Suor Angelica is a sentimental melodrama, which is set in a convent where the unfortunate sister of the title has been sent away from the world to repent her sin and social indiscretion of giving birth out of wedlock.
Puccini first came up with the idea of writing a cycle of three operas to be performed together as early as 1904, but Ricordi, his publisher did not like the idea. It was not until after Ricordi’s death that Puccini took the scheme up again. He regarded the three as an inseparable whole and was disappointed when they were soon split up. He took Il Tabarro from a French play and Gianni Schicchi was based on a character mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.
Suor Angelica was based on an original idea by librettist . It is unusual in that the entire cast is female. The score requires ten sopranos and seven mezzo-sopranos along with a chorus of nuns and angels.
The composition of the three works came toward the end of Puccini’s career. He began work in 1916 and completed the whole in 1918. The premiere was at the Metropolitan in New York on the 14th December. Because of the war, Puccini was unable to attend. His next major work was his last, the Chinese opera, Turandot.
With the possible exception of Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, Puccini wrote very little of interest for a mezzo. In Suor Angelica the dominating character is not the soprano of the title but her aunt, the Princess, a contralto iron will and cold resolve make her a memorable villain.
Pietro Mascagni was a near contemporary of Puccini, only 5 years his junior. Like Puccini, Mascagni was a pupil of Poncielli at the Milan Conservatorium. As a young man, he toured extensively as the conductor of an opera company and then he settled to become a piano teacher. In 1888 the arts publication Teatro Illustrato announced a competition designed to encourage young Italian composers. A production was guaranteed for an opera in one act with a single scene, or two at the most, on an idyllic, serious or humorous theme. Mascagni decided to enter and asked librettist Giovanni Targioni-Tozzenti if he had an idea. Targioni suggested a popular play by Giovanni Varga. Mascagni had seen the legendary actress Elenore Duse in the play and liked the idea of making it an opera.
Mascagni submitted the manuscript to the competition and in February 1890 was called to Rome to be told that his opera had won. It premiered in May of that year and was an instant success. History records that it was accorded no less than sixty curtain calls on the first performance. The work immediately entered the repertoire of opera companies round the world and fuelled a fashion for single act operas. Although it made the name of Pietro Mascagni famous, he was never able to match this youthful accomplishment. He composed more than a dozen more operatic works but none are remembered today. He became known as a conductor but sadly allowed himself to become aligned with the Fascist movement of Mussolini. He composed music for political occasions and was shunned by many of his contemporaries in the musical world. He died in 1945 lonely and in penury.
Joanna Cole, Sue Braatveldt, Maxine Montgomery & Cecily Woodberry, with Emily Burke
Roy Best, Suzanne Donald, and Gary Rowley.