Mascagni Silvano: Scottish Opera in Concert
**** (4 stars)
Conductor Stuart Stratford bounced on to the stage and gave us a lengthy but fascinating answer to the question he’d been asked a few days previously – “Why do you put on all these obscure operas?” We had a quick canter through the best of this season’s programme and the goodies to look out for next season as part of the answer – as well as doing classics from the repertoire [Magic Flute, Tosca] Scottish Opera put on modern and specially commissioned works [Greek, Flight, Anthropocene, Nixon in China, Breaking the Waves, and a new tinies’ opera Fox-Tot!] It’s good to work on finding new insights into stalwarts of the operatic canon, and exciting to work on something new whether on something newly-composed or, as with Silvano, something that’s been around for years but dropped out of sight until unearthed and found to be a brilliant piece that deserves to be heard.
On a first hearing, there was a lot to like about Silvano, especially the chorus numbers which eloquently depicted the beauty of the sea on to which the local fishermen set sail every evening, returning with the light of dawn. The orchestral writing was good, though of the ‘let’s just double the vocal line to emphasise it’ rather than the Puccini-style ‘let’s have interesting tunes wandering through the orchestra and have some sort of a vocal line on top’.
The four soloists did a good job of selling this ‘new’ music to us. Alexey Dolgov’s tenor gleamed after an initial dampness [possibly due to a cold or some such affliction?] but at times the orchestra overwhelmed him – they usually sit in the pit: were they so excited at being on display that they were unable to rein in their enthusiasm in the ‘good bits’? David Stout’s incisive baritone matched his aggressive, domineering character and music, though he swithered rather between noble renunciation and villainous spite. Leah-Marian Jones didn’t have much to do as Silvano’s mother, but did it well, especially her loving response to her son’s emotional outpourings. Emma Bell, in her Scottish Opera début, had a lot of agonising to do, and did it very well, her somewhat metallic soprano riding the orchestra with ease: but her character didn’t really convince – not her fault, with composer and librettist both giving a male view of a woman’s behaviour and motivation!
The basic plot is, as ever, a love triangle: this time set in an Italian fishing village. Silvano and Matilde were to be married, but Silvano was accused of smuggling and had to go into hiding – during which time Matilde became involved with his best friend Renzo. Silvano suddenly appears, having been pardoned: he can’t understand why Matilde is less than overjoyed and protests that she is unworthy. Renzo comes in, hoping for a good day’s fishing: a quarrel develops when he calls Silvano a bandit. Peace is eventually restored between the two men, who set off together – but Renzo reappears and reminds Matilde of their liaison, saying he will not let her go. Matilde is unwillingly forced to agree to meet him that night.
Silvano praises the calmness of the evening sea, and regrets that he is too late to join any of the fishing boats. He tells his mother of Matilde’s devotion to him while he was in hiding, and reluctantly she agrees to her son’s marriage. He goes to join his beloved – but she appears with Renzo, warning him that Silvano will kill her if he finds them together. Silvano returns, Renzo hides: Matilde denies that she was talking to anyone, but Renzo reappears. Silvano kills him and flees, leaving Matilde alone.
Silvano and Renzo are very different characters – the one quiet and introspective, the other outgoing and confident – and this is reflected in their music. Rosa, Silvano’s mother, is motivated by love for her son. Matilde, though, seems harder to understand: she spends so much of her time wailing remorsefully that it’s hard to see what either man saw in her, and she seems trapped in her remorse [like Santuzza in Mascagni’s still-current Cavalleria Rusticana, a guilt-ridden Catholic – but unlike Santuzza, given solely to weeping and wringing her hands, without the fire that makes Santuzza so much more appealing a heroine]. Her part seemed virtually one-dimensional, as she changed her mind almost constantly depending on which of the two men she was with – her liaison with Renzo seemed to be almost accidental but she was unable to resist his threats despite what she professed to be her undying love for Silvano… The translation we were given in supertitles was mercifully free from bad jokes and punning humour, but I have no way of knowing how accurately it reflected the Italian libretto, which on a first hearing had some lovely lyrical lines when describing the scenery, but was less intelligible when it came to the Matilde’s motivation – but as I’ve said, maybe composer and librettist were less interested in that than in painting the luckless temptress in a ‘doomed love triangle’.
Whatever the motivation, Mascagni knew how to write emotive music, and as the final thrilling chords of the opera died away, the disappointingly small audience erupted in cheers, stamping and sustained applause – they obviously found the work a great hit which deserves to be seen more frequently.
Mascagni Silvano: Scottish Opera in Concert, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Run Ended