Pietro Mascagni: Guglielmo Ratcliff (1895)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes.

This is my favourite of Mascagni’s operas. I’m rather surprised that it has taken me this long to review it but here it is. And ironically for a change, it was also the composer’s favourite (he also considered it his finest) among all his operas, including Cav. Incidentally, Mascagni took the Italian translation of a play by Heinrich Heine basically verbatim (he cut only one hundred lines from the play, thus it has some very long monologues) creating the first Italian Literaturoper. Stylistically, it is the polar opposite of Cav which I find a bit refreshing given that all of Mascagni’s post-Cav (L’amico Fritz the except) basically sound the same or are borderline drab.

SETTING: Scotland circa 1820. There are five main characters: Maria (soprano) the daughter of MacGregor (bass) a Scottish lord who has a dark secret. Guglielmo Ratcliff (tenor) is a rejected suitor of Maria who has already challenged and killed her next two suitors and seems to be trying a third time when he challenges her present betrothed Count Douglas (baritone). The story appears to be framed by Maria’s nurse Margherita (mezzo-soprano).




ACT 1: The Castle MacGregor. (31 minutes)

0: The prelude *** has one initial haunting theme (it thankfully returns again and again) but is interrupted by Margherita, the nurse of Maria, who recounts that she will tell the tale. We get more long preluding which is most welcomed, more Margherita, and then more haunting theme.

12, 16: MacGregor pronounces his benediction on Maria and Douglas, but much of the conversation between the two men that follows is a bit dull (standard recitative). When Maria finally gets to say something there is a nice rocking from the strings to accompany her but the first real “item” here is Douglas’ slightly-bouncy monologue in which he describes how he was attacked by bandits but then saved by an unknown knight **. The horn gets some nice work and Douglas goes into a second verse of the story before Maria conveniently faints. Margherita then bursts into what sounds like a canzone Napoletana song ** as she cradles the girl.  MacGregor goes into a “women, heh!” scene and there is a lovely patch of orchestral accompaniment as the two women leave.

21, 26: MacGregor goes into some very interesting backstory (with a rather interesting orchestral accompaniment) ** about how Maria rejected one Guglielmo Ratcliff, who later challenged her two next suitors (Douglas is the third, but has not been challenged…yet). There is a crescendo ** from the orchestra and the old man finishes his story very well, departing with some rather hopeful music. Douglas is left slightly amused with himself. Suddenly, Ratcliff’s friend Lesley arrives with a challenge for a duel at the foreboding Black Rock.

ACT 2: An Inn. (29 minutes)

0, 12: A bit of comic relief with a religious twist ** as Innkeeper Tom has his son Willie (contralto) recite the Pater Noster, but the child messes up on the line “And lead us not into temptation” which annoys his father who is certain that now the boy will end up like the thieves who frequent the inn. It is cute and the tune is very noble (and appropriate). Ratcliff’s first utterance is to angrily demand that Tom leave the child in peace. The scene moves about agreeably. Lesley arrives and ends up singing a very low passage (for a tenor at least, it goes down to a low C#). Ratcliff freaks when Lesley brings up the two men he has already killed. But this prompts a magnificent, if incredibly difficult aria *** in which he explains that due to Maria’s rejection of him, he has thirsted to kill any man whose love she does accept. It is obvious that he is borderline insane, and apparently the spirits of the two men he has killed are haunting him.

24: Apart from interjections from Lesley, Ratcliff goes on for twelve minutes before a group of five amusing thieves show up to provide more comic relief and a less claustrophobic environment *. The act ends with church bells in the background.

ACT 3: Black Rock. (21 minutes)

0, 9: The woodwinds control the opening bars. The act itself is basically an extremely long tenor aria *** which turns into a duet with first the orchestra, then with Douglas (who has showed up for their duel) and then with the orchestra again.  The duel itself is a little Mickey-mousy but if one concentrates on the scene as being one of action it works. Douglas realizes ** that Ratcliff was the knight who saved him from the bandits, so when he gets the upper hand and has a chance to kill him he doesn’t and leaves.

10: The Intermezzo **, known as Il sogno, is a shockingly beautiful piece led at first by the clarinet and having a few hints of the Easter Hymn from Cav. And yes, this was in Raging Bull. 

17: Guglielmo goes crazy as he tries to figure out where the ghosts have gone *** and everything goes crazy at the end with a final orchestral climax.

ACT 4: Maria’s bedchamber. (33 minutes)

0: Yet another intermezzo *, starting off with an off-stage feminine “haha” chorus on the very first chord. It is probably the most banal part of the score.

5, 8, 14: Eventually Margherita and Maria come in to prepare for the latter’s wedding to Douglas. Maria has an apparently happy little number * before Margherita goes into some very important backstory ** that has taken until now to be revealed.  This is namely that Maria’s mother Elisa and Guglielmo’s father Edward were lovers both before they married other people and after their respective weddings and when MacGregor learned of the affair he murdered Edward and Elisa died of grief. Much of the best parts of this is set to music originally introduced in the Act One prelude. She does eventually take a dark but great turn *** (that haunting theme returns finally!)

18: The Maria-Guglielmo duet *** in which he bursts in wounded from the duel and begs her to run away with him. Remembering what happened to her own mother she thinks at first that she might be falling into the same trap by rejecting him but she eventually changes her mind which prompts him to go mad.

26: The finale ** is, well, horrifying! Margherita reflects on what is going on as Guglielmo murders the admittedly fickle Maria. Her screams alert her father who is then also murdered by Ratcliff who then commits suicide calling out Maria’s name. Margherita does some scene chewing as she shows off the three fresh corpses to Douglas and the chorus freaks. Curtain.


Guglielmo Ratcliff is the archetypical gothic horror opera, although Margherita eventually starts to make the whole thing border on irony. I do like her (my own nonna was named Margherita and she too had a low dark voice), but I’m not completely confident in the narrator within a narrative concept that is going on here. Based on a play by Heinrich Heine, in this day and age the title character would be seen as a noxious psychotic stalker loser freak because of whom Maria would probably become the poster girl of #MeToo but in the 19th century he would have been seen as a tragic if Byronic romantic figure. The one problem with the opera’s narrative is that our sympathies are solidly with Ratcliff. Maria is a romantic imbecile for whom it is impossible to empathize and her father’s death is somewhat anti-climactic. This is bad because, particularly in the case of Maria, they are literally the murder victims of a sociopath! We also don’t see very much of any of the characters excluding Ratcliff himself which makes the other four principles (to say nothing of the nine secondary characters who are basically comic relief with the exception of Lesley) seem detached from the main narrative, which essentially consists of Guglielmo feeling bad for himself because of Maria’s rejection of him and the hauntings by the apparent ghosts of the two men he has killed. Margherita seems to be a framing device, but this only goes so far and by the end her contribution as an observer to all the violence becomes more disturbing that the murders themselves.  The score is bizarrely amazing. The title role involves some of the most taxing tenor music ever written requiring both an excellent upper range (to high C5) as well as a strong baritonal low-C3 (sometimes at forte). This was technically Mascagni’s first opera (certainly his first full-length work, which makes this even more amazing) and although there are moments that are hypnotically brilliant, he really didn’t know what to do with the long monologues he left intact from the play, there are a lot of arpeggios and orchestra rushes. There is nothing of the key changing parade we find in Cav. Although the fourth of his operas to be performed, it was started as early as 1882 when Mascagni saw the play and it was completed shortly after the premiere of Cav. Incidentally, the fourth act was Mascagni’s intended entry in the contest which gave us Cav, but his wife substituted the longer one-act opera when she was sent off to the post office. I don’t know what that says about there being a woman behind every great man but she certainly gave him his only lasting success. Either an A- or a B+.

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