Monday 19 February 2018

Talent show winner that plucks at heart strings

Italy's got talent: Mascagni struck gold with Cavalleria Rusticana
Italy's got talent: Mascagni struck gold with Cavalleria Rusticana

George Hamilton

If we might be permitted a little time travel this week, I'd like to transport you back to the Rome of 1890. It's a Saturday night, and there's plenty of entertainment on offer. You've dismissed the opera, and you're not alone, for the Teatro Costanzi - as Rome's opera house on what's now Beniamino Gigli Square was known then - has neither Verdi nor Wagner.

What's on tonight is a glorified talent contest, a music publisher's publicity stunt, three one-act operas that have taken the podium places in a competition they've run. The house is only half full.

A composer called Vincenzo Ferroni has come up with Rudello and it has been placed third. You've probably never heard of it. Nor the piece that was second - Labilia, composed by Nicola Spinelli.

You'll know the winner, though. Sparsely populated the venue may have been, but the highlight of the evening brought the house down. The audience roared its approval.

The winning one-acter was none other than Cavalleria Rusticana - Rustic Chivalry - Pietro Mascagni's tale of lust, passion and revenge, best remembered now for its sumptuous Intermezzo which has a place in everybody's hundred best tunes.

Its glorious whoosh of melody and the rest of Mascagni's creation came to prominence in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

He was a wannabe musician who'd walked out of the family bakery business to follow his dreams at the Milan conservatory, only to find the going too tough. He dropped out.

Teaching and playing the double bass was his way of making ends meet, while he was trying to develop as a composer. But he had a problem.

Before recording became the passage to prominence, getting noticed was a bit like nudging a novel on to the bookshelves. You had to find yourself a publisher, and if you couldn't, you were sunk. Nobody would touch Mascagni's music.

He saw an ad for this competition, seeking new material in the form of a one-act opera. Maybe this would open a door.

Mascagni was a fan of a Sicilian writer called Giovanni Verga. One of Verga's stories was a tale of love and betrayal, perfect, thought Mascagni, for the opera stage.

The music was done in a matter of weeks, but then he took cold feet. He lost confidence in his creation.

He had another opera on the go, and reckoned a section of it would be a better bet. But as he dithered, his new wife answered the call, and, without Pietro's knowledge, submitted the one-act opera he wasn't so sure about.

Lina Carbognani's act of matrimonial subterfuge was the making of her man. Cavalleria Rusticana was a resounding success. In jig time it was being performed on the major stages. Mascagni was an overnight sensation.

His musical drama, which put ordinary people at the heart of the action - there's the lothario involved with two women and the mess he makes of their lives, not to mention the husband of one of them who kills him in a duel - helped ground "verismo" which brought opera from the set pieces of antiquity into an art form that reflected something approaching everyday life.

And from that we have inherited the lush strings of his wonderful intermezzo, the music that springs to mind when you hear the name Mascagni.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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