MASCAGNI Guglielmo Ratcliff
Wexford Festival Opera is catnip for those seeking out rare repertory. It specialises in digging up long-forgotten relics and has a happy knack of uncovering a gem. Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff is more of a rough diamond, but one that thrilled both in the opera house and now on disc.
Although Cavalleria rusticana was the composer’s breakthrough opera, Guglielmo Ratcliff was his first attempt, having to wait until after Cav (and L’amico Fritz) for its premiere. Mascagni adored Andrea Maffei’s Italian translation of Heinrich Heine’s Wilhelm Ratcliff to the point of obsession, reciting verses while pacing his room. It’s a bloody tale, not far removed from Lucia di Lammermoor. Ratcliff, rejected by Maria MacGregor, has twice sought revenge by murdering her fiancés on the night before the wedding, each time presenting the unfortunate bride with a blood-soaked wedding ring. Margherita, an elderly inhabitant of the castle, reveals in a ballad that Maria’s mother and Ratcliff’s father were lovers, but the jealous MacGregor foiled their affair. During the opera, a third suitor arrives, Count Douglas. Ratcliff challenges him to a duel, loses, but has his life spared. The wounded Guglielmo confronts Maria, but she rejects him once again, at which point Ratcliff kills her, then her father, and finally himself. Fabio Ceresa’s thrilling production played up the opera’s gothic horror, but how well does it stand up musically?
There’s a lot of narration (though this never stopped Il trovatore!) with key characters providing ‘back story’. Mad Margaret’s haunting ballad provides an early earworm (sung by the terrific Annunziata Vestri) and MacGregor’s gory account is aided by Gianluca Buratto’s sepulchral bass. But the opera stands or falls by its title-role…and Guglielmo Ratcliff is a killer. Francesco Tamagno, creator of Verdi’s Otello, turned it down because of its vocal demands – from Act 2, the tenor is rarely offstage and the role has a relentlessly high tessitura. Angelo Villari’s clarion tenor and tireless singing make this exciting listening, while Francesco Cilluffo draws a terrific orchestral performance, especially in the peach of an intermezzo ‘Il sogno di Ratcliff’ (Ratcliff’s Dream). An essential discovery.