Sunday, October 25, 2015

All about focus: hearing Guglielmo Ratcliff at Wexford

Annunziata Vestri as Margherita, with canine companions. Photo: Clive Barda
There was no doubt at Wexford this week that Mascagni's rarely heard opera Guglielmo Ratcliff was the highlight of the 2015 festival. The opera-lovers who packed into the town's sleek wooden theatre emerged looking positively drunk on the intensity and frequent gorgeousness of its music, to say nothing of the performances of the leading roles, in which three Italian singers - Angelo Villari, Mariangela Sicilia and Annunziata Vestri - led a cast who sang their hearts out to astounding effect.

It's a fascinating case, this opera. Pietro Mascagni conceived it as a raw, green youngster, after being rejected by a girl from his home town who didn't like the new and glitzy life he was leading in Milan. Obsessed with it and its hero - a classic serial-killer who hears voices ordering him to commit murder - he worked at it on and off for many years, taking Puccini's advice not to make it his first opera, but instead to build his name with other works, and only then present it to ensure maximum impact. It was in 1895 that he stood upon the podium at La Scala to conduct it at last. Yet his one enduring success - Cavalleria Rusticana - has overshadowed it throughout the intervening century-plus.

Angelo Villari and Mariangela Sicilia. Photo: Clive Barda
Mostly that's because of the leading role. It is notoriously difficult to sing; there's no let-up to its emotional intensity (after Ratcliff first appears, in the second scene) and the quantity of high notes could send any tenor scurrying pronto for the steam-room.

Dramatic awkwardnesses intervene too. Guglielmo Ratcliff has been engaged to the woman he loves, Maria, daughter of the Count Macgregor (it's all set in romantic Scotland), but she has rejected him for scaring her with an extract of an old ballad, 'Edward, Edward', adapted by the play and libretto drawn from it for the purpose. She has twice tried to marry other men, but each time they have been found murdered at Black Rock before the ceremony. Now her new fiancé, Count Douglas, risks the same fate. Guglielmo Ratcliff, since he can't have Maria himself, is killing anybody else who tries to claim her. Ultimately he returns, the pair declare their enduring love and then he kills her and himself, interpreting the voice of Mad Margherita singing the Ballad as an order from his ghostly directors that he must do so. It turns out that his father, Edvardo, had loved her mother, Bella-Elisa, yet they had been forbidden to marry, and after she married Macgregor instead they found they still loved each other; and Macgregor had murdered Edvardo on discovering him lurking beneath Elisa's window.

Fascinating origins, there. The old ballad, 'Edward, Edward', is a dialogue between a mother and son; she asks him why his sword is covered in blood and he lies to her incrementally until ultimately confessing that he has killed his father - on what turns out to be her instigation. If that story lurks behind the many existing layers of lurking in this opera, we never quite find out. Meanwhile Ratcliff himself is apparently based on a real French assassin, Lacenaire - and if you know the film Les enfants du Paradis (which happens to be my favourite thing ever), you know Lacenaire already. He's there too, murdering some of the many men who love the free-spirited woman, Garance, whom he cannot have for himself.

Heinrich Heine's play, on which the opera is based, offers psychological complication aplenty in both the main characters and the supporting roles. The opera sometimes loses focus as a result, the second scene inordinately dominated by an innkeeper trying to teach his son the Lord's Prayer. Images of mirrors - the star-crossed lovers of the present repeating the history of their respective parents - are everywhere, and of course the castle has its resident Mad Margherita, who sings the ballad and tends the young Maria, whose mother was killed by her father when she was three months old.

What we never learn is whether Maria's real father was in fact Edvardo, which would make Maria and Guglielmo half-siblings. As they comment in the final act that even their voices are alike, you do start wondering whether there's a denouement on the way, but this - surely the ultimate dramatic climax, and a convincing motivation for the final murder and suicide - never happens. We have to infer it for ourselves - off-stage, as it were, and possibly out of the theatre - and put Guglielmo's actions down to mental illness. Presumably if it was the case, Macgregor would never have let Guglielmo go near Maria in the first place, but still...

What happened? Was Mascagni reluctant to go down that avenue for personal reasons, because of his identification with Guglielmo's romantic situation? Were there censors to worry about? Was the similarity to Wagner's twins in Die Walküre, and to Byron's Manfred, too close for comfort? Would it risk - in an opera already completely OTT in terms of melodrama - becoming a last straw in audience endurance? One way or another, it ain't there.

Angelo Villari as Guglielmo, with Evardo and Elisa. Photo: Clive Barda
Wexford's staging, in a different way, skirts the issue too. It's a Gothic marvel visually: everyone wears white in Giuseppe Palella's costumes, and the device of the mirror that finally dominates the stage in the last act, in Tiziano Santi's set designs, is not only clever in its working of the reflections - or occasional lack of them - but in the crossing over of Maria and Guglielmo's souls to join those of Edvardo and Elisa in the final moments.

Symbolism dominates. Mad Margherita from the start is accompanied by two wolf-like hounds, very clearly people on all fours with dog heads; they turn out to be the spirits of Maria's two dead suitors. Edvardo and Elisa are represented by ghostly beings in white deer-heads, both with antlers (including the female). The director, Fabio Ceresa, explains in his introductory note that what Italian and Scottish culture have in common is the importance of legend, of storytelling, of myths and ghosts and symbolism.

Fine. But I have a bit of a problem here and again it's focus. You have, in Guglielmo Ratcliff, an opera with a hero who actually has a mind, and a very diseased one: he's a heartbreaking, probably schizophrenic serial killer worthy of Nordic Noir, and opportunities to get one's teeth into such characters in operas assuredly do not grow on trees (with the notable exception of Herman in The Queen of Spades). In this staging, though, the characters remains largely cardboard while the focus goes to the supporting imagery: the mirror, the ghosts, and goodness knows why the innkeeper has to torture his son with a hangman's rope while he tries to recite his prayer. Mascagni's focus is skewed to begin with; Ceresa's could possibly even out the admirable awareness of background with a more thoroughly convincing foreground. Notably the first act, the score of which is slow to get off the ground (though the opening music is exquisite), felt aimless.

And the singing? Meet Angelo Villari, folks.

Tenors who can sing this role obviously don't grow on trees either. Villari is in many ways a classic Italian tenor (he's actually Sicilian): enormous heft of voice, quite a few notches more powerful than anyone else's on stage, and with astonishing top notes, which come into their own in this score. Nevertheless there were quite a few insecurities at lower levels, intonation issues and a sense from time to time that the sound could be better supported; and while the tone was enormous, it did not always have the beauty and warmth that others might have to offer. It's possible that in a larger house increased distance would enable tonal substance to come through the decibels, though we'll have to wait and see. But hey. He brought the house down.

Mariangela Sicilia as Maria was another matter, proving a spot-on, radiant-toned, exciting star soprano in the making with real charisma in her voice.

Here she is participating in the 2014 Operalia:

And as Mad Margaret, Annunziata Vestri - complete with white contact lenses - was a class act in the extreme, a mezzo of magnificent drama and unshakeable power. Conductor Francesco Cilluffo and the excellent Wexford orchestra drew out the beauty and pathos of Mascagni's impassioned creation at every turn.

It's hard to gauge whether we're likely to see this opera again any time soon, but now that there's a very fine cast that knows it, it would be a pity if no other house scooped it, and them, up; the music may not be the equal of Puccini, but so much of it is so beautiful that I for one am itching to give it another go.

Here is Mascagni himself conducting the fabulous Intermezzo in 1933.

BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting Guglielmo Ratcliff live from Wexford on Saturday 31 October, 8pm.