Opera in three acts and four scenes. Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes.
The Rome Opera actually has photographs of the original sets of this opera here: https://archiviostorico.operaroma.it/edizione_opera/nerone-p-mascagni-1936-37/
This was the last premiered opera of Mascagni, ending a career which had started off with the infamous sphere known as Cav of Cav-Pag fame, which, for non-opera elites, is not the name of a contorted sex act but rather a double billed performance of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci (you know, the one with the killer clown!). Anyway before I go totally juvenile, this opera has an extremely bizarre and complicated genesis, so most of my usual comment section is actually at the start because of how confusingly complicated this work is. I know, and this thing is still under two hours!
Nerone might be rather an odd duck seeing that most of its music was actually written decades before the very late premiere date above would indicate. This is because over half the score was originally written for a completely different project, Vistilia, which was started around 1894 and was aborted sometime around 1907. Because Mascagni committed the ultimate faux pas of insulting Arrigo Boito (whose own Nerone had been anticipated since the 1870s and still not come to fruition) by declaring that he was working on his own opera about the Roman emperor, the project was initially shelved and replaced with Vistilia which would itself be abandoned. Fast forward almost forty years and a now sixty-eight year old Mascagni has half a score sitting around waiting to be finished. Still more than a decade away from death, and in an attempt to curry favour with Mussolini of all people, Mascagni employed the services of one Rossato to adapt a 19th century play by Pietro Cossa to much of the preexisting libretto of Vistilia. After half of this project was finished, Mascagni fired Rossato and hired Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti (who had worked with Mascagni for six other operas before), who consolidated the work Rossato had finished and most of the score was completed before Targioni-Tozzetti died in May 1934. Although Rossato threatened to sue, as well over half the libretto of Nerone was written by him, he never received credit and Mascagni was somehow never taken to court over this. By August 1934 all but the third act intermezzo had been completed and Mascagni (already seventy-one at this point) wrote it in a single night. Mussolini, given the subject matter of the opera, was not pleased, and apparently confronted Mascagni on his choice of subject matter here. Possibly because Mascagni was the last internationally famous Italian opera composer from the 19th century who was both alive and active (Giordano had produced his last opera in 1929), the man got one last hurray with this and the Fascist regime let it go. Due to its notoriety, spectacular production values, and mastery of execution by its cast and orchestra, La Scala pulled off its biggest premiere since Turandot nine years earlier, and the work was at least an esteemed success. Mascagni was told that Mussolini had been calling after each act to find out exactly how many curtain calls and applause the work had received. As one will see, the first act was the least successful, and the night became progressively more successful. But it was a coda for the classic world of Italian opera, not its swansong. Obviously the opera has not been the international success of the posthumous Puccini work, but it was successful enough to at least justify Mascagni completing it and for us to not write off post-Puccini Italian opera as rubbish.
The two operas share a common Ancient Roman setting, but are otherwise completely unrelated. In order to salvage what he had written, Mascagni fitted the new libretto of Nerone into the incomplete score of Vistilia. Essentially, the result are two incomplete scores welded together by a libretto about Nero which itself borrows large passages from the original libretto for Vistilia. The original opera is apparently impossible to reconstruct but we know that almost all of the second act and the first scene of act three holds most of this music, and are considered the better sections of the score. It is probable that the story of Vistilia is about a slave girl who gains her freedom and falls in love with her former master, which would explain why the plot of this opera makes no historical sense in the context of the life of Nero. The exception, in act two, is a rather brilliant aria for Egloge, which is from the 1930s and is the single last great piece of music Mascagni would write (although he lived for another decade, Nerone was his last major composition). The first act (the shortest) and the final scene were mostly constructed in 1933 and are comparatively dry, much of it consisting of triad chords and orchestral fragments accompanying recitative by the singers. The act three intermezzo is an exception, as it is rather furious and frantic, but also scattered. However, although this forces the first act to be character driven, this understated musical language mostly works in the final scene and overall the score is dramatically powerful enough to work on stage even at its most underwhelming. Also, do not be put off by the late premiere date, this score is extremely conservative for 1935, it feels more like 1885 with a mild Wagner infection.
There are fifteen soloists: two sopranos, five tenors, three baritones, and five basses.
SETTING: Rome and environs, 68 C.E. Nero (tenor) is in love with acting (no seriously, this Nero is a man acting as the Emperor of Rome and failing at it, that is literally the premise of the work, if you don’t get that immediately the rest makes no sense). He is also in love with the Greek slave girl Egloge (soprano, and yes, if you try to Google that name you get Google) although Atte (dramatic soprano) a free woman, is also in love with Nero. In the first act, Nero shocks his subjects by losing in a fight to another man while being publicly intoxicated. In the second, he seeks his fortune from an astrologer named Babilio (bass) and has him executed after he predicts the death of the Emperor. In the same scene he embarks on a rapturous love duet with Egloge, who has been brought to be his sex-slave, but they mutually fall in love. Atte attempts to murder Egloge by stabbing her, but Nero is able to stop her. In act three, which is in two scenes, Atte murders Egloge by poisoning her at a banquet, and then, in the last scene, she commits suicide before Nero is killed by one of his own soldiers, Faonte (tenor) in order to avoid imprisonment after the Senate elects Galba as emperor.
And yes, I do get the irony that I have had to explain so much for an opera that is under two hours in length. You would think this was a four hour grand opera Mascagni had composed, but no, this is it, all 214 pages (piano-vocal) of it.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A tavern outside Rome. (27 minutes)
0: The opera opens with three eery triad intervals ** (these return) and we are off into a monologue by the ex-gladiator turned tavern keeper Mucrone (bass) joined by the mime (Nevio, tenor) and gladiators Petronio, bass, and Eulogio, bass, talking about the waning status of the empire as they wash glasses. This drags on for a very long time but it surprisingly keeps one interested, particularly as Mascagni uses his tenor effectively by inserting some vocal ornaments for Nevio, as well as the patches of orchestral Mickey-mousing. None of it would betray its 1930s origin, in fact, it is saturated in the mid-to-late 19th century. There is a brief Christ is Risen! chorus (no joke) that just sort of pops out and a tenor shepherd is heard off in the distance. Everything seems so peaceful. There are even a couple of (probably accidental) quotations from La fanciulla del West if you can spot them.
8: Al soccorso! Egloge runs on attempting to escape slave catchers, the intensity of the moment is rather effectively depicted by the orchestra ** (notice how the orchestra tends to follow Nevio around). She is followed by Nero and his second Menecrate (baritone) who are disguised as slave catchers. The three men try to protect Egloge, thinking that she is being abducted. Petronio decides to get into a brawl with Nero, but Menecrate reveals the true identity of the Emperor which stops everything after Petronio knocks him to the ground. Nero forgives him, and orders that Egloge be taken to the palace.
10, 18, 25: Si, Nerone, son io!/Da questo nappo/Gloria a Nerone! There is a surprising noble orchestral passage ** as Nerone gains the upper hand and embarks on the closest thing in the act to an aria. Nevio warns him that his debauchery will eventually catch up with him. Nero then hits up Atte *, but first embarks on another lengthy passage of recitative with the men relieved only by a return of a Mickey-Mousing tune which followed Nero around earlier and a few outbursts from the orchestra and our star tenor. He is either going to get drunk and try to seduce her, or just get drunk. It appears as if the latter is more likely as he collapses under a table. Nero is musically more interesting that Atte here, even though she gets a long passage after he falls asleep. Menecrate returns with the Pretorian guards and everyone sings praises to Nero as he gets taken out and the curtain falls *.
ACT 2: The Great Terrace of the Domus Aurea. (34 minutes)
3:Te sien propizi Nero reads from Oedipus Rex as he awaits the astrologer Basilio. This is basically the same sort of eery triad-interval material we had in the previous act for a while. Things get mildly better with the arrival of the astrologer * but only just. Nero sends him away, after the mortal prediction that the emperor himself will die within an hour of the death of the astrologer, and asks Menecrate to bring in the Greek slave girl (Egloge, of course). Nero greets her with a very 19th century sounding recitative, oddly drawing room romantic type material.
10: Danze notte e di Suddenly, she goes into her life story in a chromatic aria **, much of it about her dancing.
14: Non sei più schiava! Nero frees her and they embark on a love duet, probably the strongest music so far in the opera ***. There is one particular (and frequently repeated) bit in the vocal lines (both Nero and Egloge) similar to Edgar, but it is actually in the orchestra where the music really takes off. He calls her his rondine (swallow in Italian), and she replies that the swallow has found a nest (la rondine cerca un nido) Faonte pops in briefly announcing Greek chorus girls, a female chorus is heard and backs up Egloge before Atte arrives and stakes her territory. For instances, Egloge gives her name to Atte, something the latter refuses.
22: Immagini che in questa casa Atte is furious ** with Egloge.
23: Rimango! Egloge responds, prompting the full duet ***, especially a climatic rebuttal from Atte. Nero intervenes just in time to save Egloge from being stabbed by Atte. Both women leave, Menecrate comes back announcing the arrival of the Pretorians.
29: Salve Nerone! One of the better choral sequences *** as the Pretorians greet Nero, the threat being that the senate plots to replace him with Galba. After a long patch of fury, Egloge returns to take Nero off for an intimate encounter in the palace gardens. A rather effective end to the act, although subtle.
ACT 3: (48 minutes)
Scene 1: A richly decorated banquet hall in the Imperial Palace.
0: Gloria al Nerone! Party guests sing moderately explosive praises to Nero **. Atte lurks in the shadows, planning to poison Egloge.
5: Quando al suave Nero performs a rather lovely tenor show piece for the guests *** (at this point we are already one fifth of the way through the score of the act). Atte tricks Egloge into drinking a toast to youth and she becomes instantly ill. Nero stops all of the festivities as a result (the triad intervals from the beginning of the opera make an ominous reappearance).
10: Tu soffrir o mio tesoro Nero cradles the dying Egloge in another great tenor tune ***.
13: La tuo piccola rondine Egloge says her goodbyes to Nero rather sweetly *** with traces of their act 2 love duet. His response, after she dies, is explosive. But he has little time to grieve. Faonte arrives with news that the Senate has elected Galba as emperor and Nero must flee.
18: Tu dormi intanto Nero leaves the body of Egloge with a poignant lament **.
24: Qual premio otteni Thinking himself totally alone, Atte tries to win him over. The problem is not the vocal line, it is there, but the orchestral backing is just not strong enough **. Faonte again returns, Nero needs to leave pronto!
Scene 2: The estate of Faonte in the countryside outside Rome.
28: The intermezzo **, as the scenery is changed out is rather furious.
33: The final scene * of Italian opera starts off with a rare tenor-tenor exchange followed by further recitative (expect more of this for the rest of the opera) between Nero and Atte, and discussion of how to die (dagger is chosen). References to the first act pop in and out (much of the music for Nevio returns here).
38: Ne tu possa The one number left is when Atte herself suggests suicide and sings one last sad farewell to Nero ***, this dominates the rest of the opera apart from patch of arioso from Nero. Faonte returns with news that the Senate has declared Nero the Enemy of Rome. Atte stabs herself to show Nero how to do it, she dies. Nero is too afraid, Faonte stabs him instead just as soldiers rush on. Nero, the great artist, dies, the soldiers are too late. The opera ends on a descent, timpani hit, and a whole chord on E. Curtain.
Nerone, Egloge, and Atte dominate the score and are the only characters who are actually completely drawn. What exactly Mascagni or anyone else was thinking in giving such names to the female characters is beyond me. The other twelve male roles are comparatively minor and some only appear once. In fact, apart from the three main characters, all twelve of the remaining roles were double cast by six singers on the Bongiovanni recording which is the basis of this review, which demonstrates how brief the majority of the roles are. The plot, such as it is, resembles Edgar (idealistic tenor torn between a lyric soprano and a dramatic soprano) but lacking even the motivations of that opera; the only real difference is that neither of the women are virginal. Egloge and Atte are both in love with the emperor rather than the man, really, and seem more concerned with figuring out which one of them is better able to satisfy him physically or how to eliminate the other in order to accomplish that goal. It is nice to root for Nero and Egloge, but how does she just go from trying to flee from him to bedding him so quickly just over the revelation that he is the Emperor? The first act is certainly the weakest musically, but it is also the shortest, and even then, there are some attractive items. An interesting swansong for a major Italian composer very late in operatic history. Oddly, an alpha minus?
Mallach, Alan. Nerone and the Last Years 1933-1945 in Pietro Mascagni and His Operas. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002. 269-273, and 275-276.