Mascagni is best known for his short opera, Cavalleria Rusticana. However, the composer himself rated another of his works much more highly. Guglielmo Ratcliff, begun when he was in his teens, is rarely performed and there was a buzz among locals and international cognoscenti gathered in Wexford in anticipation of an exhumation of the opera last Thursday.
The plot, taken from a play by Heinrich Heine, is a Gothic melodrama of star-crossed lovers, slain suitors and ghostly apparitions set in a 19th century Scottish fantasy-land.
Guglielmo Ratcliff, our troubled antihero, is spurned by Maria, an aristocrat’s daughter. He murders both her subsequent suitors, presenting his beloved with their wedding rings attached to their severed hands. That’s just part of the gruesome back-story. Shortly after the curtain opens, we meet Douglas, the latest suitor who barely has his feet under the table before he is summoned to a duel.
It looks like it’ll be an early shower for Douglas but, aided by the ghosts of the slain suitors who return in the form of wolves, he survives, and has another go at pressing his suit with Maria before a tragic Tristan and Isolde-style tragic ending.
The lavish staging was impressive. Italian director Fabio Ceresa sets the outer scenes in a fairytale icy palace with costumes and props in ivory and silver. Dance is a major feature. The ghosts of Eduardo and Eliza, a doomed pair from a previous generation appear as deer adding a pas de deux as a counterpoint to the interaction between the principals. There was a wow factor in a mirror scene where perfectly symmetrical couples dance on either side of a giant frame.
The title role is notoriously difficult and Angelo Villari had a stonking big tenor voice that made the audience in the upper circle sit up and gasp with the sheer intensity of it even if the intonation wasn’t always accurate.
Italian mezzo-soprano Annunziata Vestri, as Margherita, was a powerful presence recounting the sinister back-story. Just one Irish singer, Rory Musgrave, was credited in a minor role. An expansive intermezzo in Act 3 was a high point which gave the strings an opportunity to wallow in their rich, warm sound under conductor, Francesco Cilluffo.
It won’t be to everybody’s liking, but the performance received sustained applause, numerous curtain calls and superlatives were flying around the foyer at the end.