Pietro Mascagni: Parisina (1913)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 3 Hours 13 Minutes.


Title Page of the 1913 publication of the libretto. 

I made a coin toss between this and Iris. This obviously won but I plan on releasing Iris very soon. This is an opera that feels excessively longer than it actually is (my post is also longer than usual, being 2275 words), partially because the first three acts are close to three hours long all by themselves. The first performance apparently took over five hours, including close to four hours of music. The one word reviewers have to Mascagni was to doom the opera: cut! The fourth act, which for some reason was the first to get loped off, is both the shortest (being less than half the length of the second shortest act (act one, incidentally) and apparently considered to have the best music in the opera. The libretto was by Gabriele D‘Annunzio and the score was completed within eleven months of when he finished the libretto. The refusal of the librettist to cut his verses, which Mascagni never the less did on his own from 1400 lines to 1070,  is the main reason why the opera is so excessively long, as the plot itself does not merit so much length. This is a demanding work, both vocally and emotionally, with long sweeping vocal phrases and luxurious orchestral accompaniment. Although called the Italian Tristan und Isolde the score ultimately lacks leitmotifs, and comparison should perhaps be closer to Pelleas et Melisande, although the music of Parisina lacks the subtlety and delicacy of the French opera while demonstrating the same madness as the Liebesnacht. 

SETTING: Ferrara, 1425. For such a long work, there are very few characters. Parisina (soprano) is the young wife of Nicolo d‘Este (baritone), Duke of Ferrara and father of Ugo (tenor) sired by his former mistress Stella dell‘Assassino (mezzo-soprano). There are only two other soloists, Aldobrandino (bass) a friend of Ugo who shows up to tell Parisina of his victory in battle, and La Verde (mezzo-soprano) the servant of Parisina who acts sort of like Margaret in Guglielmo Ratcliffe only she doesn’t know what is going to happen. Not very much happens in any of the acts as the action occurs very, very slowly. In the first act we are introduced to Ugo and his mother Stella, who is infuriated that Parisina has replaced her, during an archery competition. Stella enlists her son to destroy her rival. In act two, upon defeating Slavic invaders, Ugo meets his step-mother at the chapel of Loreto where they illicitly embrace before the statue of the Madonna. In act three Parisina reads the story of Francesca da Rimini leading to a massive love duet and the discovery of the lovers who are then ordered to be executed by Nicolo. In act four, Ugo and Parisina await execution as Stella fails to save her son from the block.


ACT 1: The villa of the Marchese Este. (51 minutes)

3: Ohimè grido il mattino The prelude is all over the place with elaborate orchestral blasts and bombasts for some time, energetic, some of it resembling something near to a Parisian Cabaret but of little consequence otherwise apart from the fact that they are good tunes and will return later in the opera. Things eventually settle down, the curtain rises, and we see La Verde moping about to a strangely haunting tune **. Melodies from the prelude come flooding back in various random orders as a series of choruses occur in the background while the archery competition starts. Ugh comes on to a quaintly 19th-century style recitative before a dialogue between a series of male peasants occurs. It is all energetic stuff. Aldobrandino asks Ugo if he is quite alright.

14: Sapete perché grido An exception to the energetic rule: a quiet choral patch *. This is followed by Ugo telling Aldobrandino about how he is in a Hell of Joy.

20: Smagrato mi sembri His mother Stella arrives in a fury, which rapidly turns more morose * as she is on stage for the next twenty-two minutes. She eventually as a brief moment of something not depressed when she asks him to kill her rival: Parisina of course (it has taken her nine minutes just to get around to saying her name!). He swears by the Wolf of Siena to avenge her. There are patches of brief, lush melodies from the orchestra, but otherwise the star at the top really must make do. There is a brief and strange female chorus which indicates when Parisina first appears (here she is silent).  Something awakens, or at least stirs, in Ugo when he sees Parisina, but neither he nor his mother are quite sure what. 

40: Non dormite, o cacciatore Stella goes into a rage monologue which gets cut off by hunting horns, and a cappella tenor-bass chorus of hunters * as Nicolo arrives. He eventually asks for his son in order to introduce him to his new wife. Parisina is not a willing bride: it is obvious from her first irate speech that she is a pawn, sold by her father to Nicolo. She particularly hates Stella, but gets interrupted when Ugo does finally show up, which awakens something in Nicolo (paternal love? in any case the orchestra gets very anxious at this point). Much of the rest of the act consists of a furious monologue for Ugo, although it ends with yet another doleful feminine background chorus (watch for a depressed viola solo) as Parisina stares at Ugo. 

ACT 2: The chapel at Loreto, before the statue of the Madonna. (63 minutes).

0: Ave Maria, grazia plena The act starts rather logically with a Hail Mary. This is only the first in a series * of Roman Catholic Marian hymns which make up the better part of the first third of the act. The male chorus sing a Laus Virginis and a sailor hymn before going into the Litany of Loreto. Eventually Parisina and La Verde come on to make offerings to the Virgin.

13: Amor prese Vergogna La Verde sings a bizarre song * which, at the very least, does have more of a tune than anything else before it. Finally we realize that a battle is about to take place some distance from Loreto. The prayers are repeated. 

18: Bene morrò d’amore Parisina embarks upon perhaps the best number in the opera (and opens the best section of the opera which follows): first, a long monologue addressed to the Virgin Mary ***, offering jewels and her finest gown in exchange for Italian victory. The enemy arrives: apparently Slavic pirate ships from across the Adriatic trying to raid the coast for eastern slave markets. Parisina calls to Aldobrandino as to the whereabouts of Ugo and he reassures her that her step-son will be victorious over the would-be invaders. 

25, 28: Spingono il carro/A te, torre d’avorio Second, The battle sequence **, depicted as a choral epigraph. Ugo arrives victorious but dripping in the blood of his enemies and orders all to worship the Virgin **. The priests go into a Salve Regina. Ugo embraces Parisina and gets her dress stained with blood (to which La Verde makes protests).

32, 50, 57: O Verde, porta l’acqua/Non so che fumo atroce/L’ardor dell’inferno mi sarà Parisina orders La Verde to take water and pannolini (little breads?) to the populous in celebration of the victory, but this is really just a rouse to start the opera on its next great passage: the first Parisina/Ugo love duet *** which takes up the remaining thirty-one minutes of the act (with only minimal interruptions). This is basically the Liebesnacht meets Italian Catholicism. Things get a bit more militant, and a little rowdy around eleven minutes in but return to normal as Ugo begs for Parisina to kiss him again, and this time in a less maternal way. At first she tries desperately to dissuade him from his legally incestuous desires. Something exquisite happens here *** in the strings. The chorus is heard praying from without. Ugo declares that his desire for her is like the fires of hades ***. She tries again to calm him, begging him rather to pray.  

ACT 3: The Bedchambers of Parisina (54 minutes)

0: A lush prelude ** starts of an otherwise stormy opening scene ***. A foreboding female chorus is heard as Parsina reads the Tale of Tristan because she can not sleep. She sees if La Verde is asleep (obviously not now!). This entire dialogue is turbulent and rapidly turns into a monologue for Parisina that is full of angst, desire, lust, and longing.

14: Francesca! Francesca! She is torn between reading Tristan and Isolde (there are references to the Wagner opera here if you can make them out, particularly in the strings) or Francesca da Rimini *** (although the former seems to be winning) and goes into a philosophical monologue about the merits of each tale. A bird sings outside her window as she goes into Tristan and Isolde.

20: Parisina! Parisina! The second love duet ** is not of the same extreme voltage and is not quite as long. She rages at him for being sad about his mother Stella, her bitter enemy. She eventually asks him to forgive her for her outburst, prompting a good emotive monologue out of him.

29: La notte ha la sua via Another monologue for Parisina ** to a shimmering string accompaniment. The bird continues its song outside. La Verde arrives to tell her mistress that Nicolo is about to arrive. She tries to hide Ugo. He apologizes for the late arrival and asks what she has been doing: reading Tristan, she admits.

36: Per certo, donna Nicolo finally gets the closest thing he has to a true monologue in the opera *. This section, along with when Parisina speaks, could easily have co-existed in a Wagner score (Lohengrin in particular). It eventually collapses as he finds Ugo and is about to stab him as an intruder. Parisina protests this, as she could not believe Nicolo heartless enough to kill his own son.

50: Ah com’è bella! La vedete voi? The two lovers each get a monologue, first Parisina (fury), then Ugo (more romantic and fiery) **, before Nicolo sentences them to death.

ACT 4: The Lion Tower. (25 minutes)

0, 2: Non odo più The prelude ** and the third love duet *** as Parisina and Ugo (chained to the walls) await the executioner at dawn.

11: O figlio, dove sei? Stella arrives and the musical temperature drops with her *. She freaks out in a massive monologue and begs her son to go with her and denounce Parisina so that he might be freed and live.

19: Vedi, non io lo serro The play-out **: Parisina tells Ugo to go to his mother, live! He refuses. Then the two women battle each other for the soul of Ugo just before the Executioner arrives.


The overall effect of Parisina is more enjoyable and entertaining than the star-ratings would indicate (giving the impression that the opera takes over an hour to finally get to where it needs to be). It is Mascagni‘s masterpiece, the problem is that it isn’t a masterpiece, or if it is, it is a flawed one. The music is never really all that melodic (with the rare climatic exceptions as in acts 2 and 4), and is in fact a bit derivative, with much of the down time sounding like the worst bits of Wagner (although it never actually becomes ornery), but it has a grandeur of scale from start to finish which is both unrelenting and unique in the Mascagni oeuvre. The one thing Mascagni definitely successes at with this opera is giving us the impression that he has written a great opera, even though this probably is not actually true. He does this by coming as close to writing something like Tristan as any Italian composer ever would. The results are sometimes very impressive (acts 2 and 4), other times a little boring (act 1, parts of act 3). The score requires extreme stamina from its soprano and tenor leads, who must be on stage for sometimes over an hour at a time. The other four soloist roles are more reasonable (especially the two lower voiced males who might get around half an hour of work in the entire show). The two mezzos are given more, but are not as overwhelmed as the two lovers (I think around forty minutes of stage time for each). Parisina herself is given rather little in the first act (only a brief appearance at the end of the act), but is on stage for the entirety of the last three acts, nearly two and a half hours with only intermission breaks! Ugo is allowed to appear sometime in the middle of each act (apart from the last), although he does take part in four massive duets (one with Stella, three with Parisina) and gets two huge monologues in the first act. Another feature which I totally ignored in the review but which is worth mentioning is the usage of the chorus, not as a protagonist, but as a second orchestra. Alan Mallach references this in his biography Pietro Mascagni and His Operas. Ultimately the sad thing about Parisina is that it has a good score (possibly the best Mascagni ever wrote), and a good libretto by a poet (whose lifestyle and politics I may well detest but whose talent I dare not deny), yet it is seemingly un-performable. It is too long; were it around forty minutes shorter it would probably have been more successful. The fourth act has no dramatic purpose and is too philosophically driven even if musically it is very, very good. There is little action in general, and yet it is a very good score: B+.

LINK TO ACT 1: (For some reason I can’t post the video).


11 responses to “Pietro Mascagni: Parisina (1913)”

  1. So you loathe Tristan – but think Mascagni’s best opera is the one most like Tristan?


    1. Doubt it. We are talking about Mascagni, a composer of desperately secondary quality. Parisina does however highlight both the best and worst aspects of its parent work. It is BIG and LOUD, which is impressive, but also equally boring at times.

      Who knows, maybe my opinion will change with Iris, after all I have never heard it before (apart from the opening chorus).

      This is the most IMPRESSIVE Mascagni work, but I like both Fritz and Ratcliffe more.

      What do you think of Parisina?


      1. I don’t know it; I’ve only heard whichever one he wrote of Cav & Pag, and the Lady Godiva one.


      2. Cav. Leoncavallo wrote Pag. The Lady Godiva one is Isabeau.


  2. Watch out! If you’re not careful, you’ll soon be a devout Bayreuthite!


  3. I think Iris is his finest score. I can’t believe dreck like Cav is so beloved by many. The orchestration and harmony are feeble next to Iris, Puccini too learnt a few things from that work.


    1. Thank you kapruit for commenting!

      I agree with you about Cav. It has some catchy tunes and the characterization of Santuzza can be amazing with a great soprano/mezzo singer-actress, but I really feel that it was a case of the right place at the right time that saved it from oblivion. Italian opera needed new blood after Aida, and didn’t get a transfusion for nearly twenty years until Cav came along and the Italian public grabbed hold of it. Afterwards everyone expected a masterpiece from Mascagni, nothing else would do, and although he became technically a more effective composer with experiments in whole-tone scales and the like, no masterpiece adored by the public enough to top Cav ever emerged during the remaining 42 years of his operatic career.

      As for Iris, I totally see where Puccini got influences later used in Turandot (particularly the choruses). I do find Iris extremely dark though. The story was painful for me to get through with the sex trafficking and the heroine dying in a sewer only to go to Japanese heaven. But that is all in my review I will release next month.

      From a technical stand-point, however, I see what you mean about Iris. It is very experimental. Obviously Mascagni was making a strong attempt at surprising everyone with this score and to some extent he succeeded. It just never topped Cav with the Italian (or international) public.


      1. Excellent points their Phil. I was worried you would find it too dark like Rusalka…

        You can call me Kevin by the way.


      2. Well, if the musical quality is high enough, being too dark will not always harm an opera when I review it. Incidentally, Iris is up! It took me a while, and some repeated viewing, to realize what the story is trying to actually say.


  4. Hi there and thank you for your extensive research. I am hoping to find a full score of Parisina, as there are many references to extensive sections written for Bass Flute (might be listed as an albisiphon) and Alto Flute (might be listed as Nightengale Flute). It would be amazing to see a full score, so far there are only piano reductions that I can find. Any ideas where I can find this full score?
    Thanks so much


    1. I am afraid that my guess is as good as yours unfortunately. As far as I know only a piano-vocal score is available at this time. The only thing I could think of would be if an opera house which has performed Parisina recently (unlikely) might have a conductor copy instrumental score or parts scores for bass and alto flute(s) respectively. But Parisina is rarely performed, so the possibility is extremely low.


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