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This production of Pietro Mascagni’s “Guglielmo Ratcliff” was
a collaborative effort between three Italian cities and Bonn,
Germany, making it somewhat of an international event. This
production celebrates the centenary of the premiere of this
work in 1895. Although it was technically the fourth Mascagni
(1863-1945) opera to be staged, the composer began writing
the music as early as 1882; therefore, in many ways, it was
his first significant operatic project. He continued writing
music for it until 1895, well after his premieres of
“Cavalleria Rusticana” and “L’Amico Fritz.” Throughout his long
life, “Guglielmo Ratcliff” would remain Mascagni’s favorite
operatic composition.

This tale of unbridled jealousy and madness is also important
for another reason. Inspired by Andrea Maffei’s translation of
Heinrich Heine’s 1822 tragedy, “William Ratcliff,” Mascagni
practically set Maffei’s version to music verbatim, in lieu of a
libretto, thus giving birth to a genre known as “Literaturoper.”
This operatic form would become most popular during the early
20th Century, expressed in such works as “Salome,” by Richard
Strauss,” “Pelléas et Mélisande,” by Claude Debussy and
“Wozzeck,” by Alban Berg. Although “Guglielmo Ratcliff” is not
ranked among these masterpieces, it is still an effective
melodrama, and requires singers adept at declamation.
The orchestra also has a heightened role, complete with a
melodic passage in Act Three that is reminiscent of the
“Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém,” or “Song to the Moon,” from
Antonín Dvořák’s opera, “Rusalka.” Stylistically, I believe that
“Guglielmo Ratcliff” is a promising work that fits into the late
19th Century verismo mode.

The tenor title role is a killer, particularly in Act Two, wherein
the singer must sustain long passages of singing “full voice,”
for much of the time. Maurizio Frusoni as “Guglielmo Ratcliff”
acquitted himself fairly well; however you could hear the effort
behind his voice. His love interest, Maria, was performed by
soprano Marisa Vitali. Unfortunately, her sound was a bit shrill,
with evidence of a wobble. Although certainly not topnotch,
the orchestra performed well under the baton of
Massimo De Bernart, and the remaining cast members were
also good, if not great.

From a dramatic standpoint, this live recording has advantages,
providing a “you are there” environment, which included a
rather audible prompter. It wasn’t a first-rate, digital recording,
but when you consider that it was a centenary performance of
an operatic rarity, I believe it was acceptable. I suppose that
some critical allowance should be given to this production,
especially when you compare it with a big-budget studio
recording, which is what this work deserves.

Unfortunately, the accompanying booklet only includes an
Italian libretto and a synopsis in English. Anyone curious about
this work will also be interested in the enclosed essay,
“Mascagni and the Birth of ‘Literacy Opera,’” by Alberto Paloscia.
I believe this opera is worth hearing for anyone wishing to
broaden his or her knowledge of this composer, who is
frequently erroneously billed as a “one work man.”

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