Music critics are often accused of intentionally going to concerts that they are bound to dislike. Not this one. I made a point of passing up Lorin Maazel’s recent and, to me at least, unpromising Beethoven festival with the New York Philharmonic and instead attended an evening with the orchestra that surely couldn’t fail: guest conductor David Robertson and soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard addressing Debussy’s rarely heard Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra and Prokofiev’s equally neglected Piano Concerto No. 1, followed by Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, still a dangerous blockbuster despite its now-permanent association with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Yes, the Philharmonic’s innate virtuosity has been expertly tapped by Maazel, but how wonderful to hear these musicians respond to a conductor like Robertson, who looks for a great deal more than chilly micromanaging. The huge Strauss tone poem not only delivered all its punches and seductive blandishments on cue, but it also unfolded with a shape, logic, and note-to-note inevitability that other maestros often miss. Aimard and Robertson collaborated on the two compact Debussy and Prokofiev scores as equal partners, savoring all the gorgeously changing hues of the former and enjoying the latter’s brazen exuberance to the hilt. A superior concert all the way.
Cavalleria Rusticana will keep Pietro Mascagni’s name alive as long as opera houses exist, but to the dedicated mascagnano, this youthful smash hit is small beer. For the true believer, three operas define Mascagni’s genius, each one epitomizing a different stage in the composer’s creative development: Guglielmo Ratcliff (first performed in 1895 but mostly written ten years earlier), Iris (1898), and Parisina (1913). This will probably come as news to more casual operagoers, who are unlikely to have encountered any of them. Guglielmo Ratcliff, in fact, had never before been heard in this country until Teatro Grattacielo, an adventurous group that specializes in presenting rarely heard Italian operas by Mascagni and his contemporaries, gave a concert performance not long ago in Alice Tully Hall.
It would be easy to sneer at Guglielmo Ratcliff and the Heinrich Heine play that provided the source material. Both are extravagantly confessional works conceived by men barely out of their teens, although Heine impulsively wrote his “dramatic ballad” in three days while Mascagni toiled on his four-act opera for twelve years. It’s a tale of the Romantic outsider in the raw, a Scottish youth named William Ratcliff who methodically murders all suitors for the hand of his unobtainable beloved, Maria, until he kills her and himself in a gory Liebestod. There is nothing quite like Ratcliff in Italian opera, a work obsessively loyal to its origins—Mascagni set Heine’s verse, translated into Italian, word for word and faithfully turned the play’s long narratives into complex musical structures. Despite its emotional excesses, the opera is carefully planned, intensely word-conscious, and at times almost painfully expressive.
Unfortunately, it is also dreadfully unwieldy and the title role almost impossible to sing. So congratulations to Lando Bartolini, who tirelessly belted out this killer part and probably didn’t need to be accommodated by so many cuts in his music. In fact, the whole cast was strong: Carol Ann Manzi as the hapless Maria; Eugenie Grunewald as her crazed nurse, Margherita; Brian Davis as Guglielmo’s rival, Douglas; and Philip Cokorinos as Maria’s crusty father. An old hand at keeping this sort of repertory moving and under control, Alfredo Silipigni conducted with authority. Guglielmo Ratcliff will now no doubt return to its slumbers, but thanks once again to Teatro Grattacielo for performing a heroic community service.