Vittorio Gnecchi: Cassandra (1903)

Opera in prologo e due parti. Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes.

Stealing of Cassandra by Ajax, Tischbein, 1806.

Did Richard Strauss plagiarize the son of an Italian industrialist when he wrote Elektra? In 1909, an article by the musicologist Giovanni Tebaldini made this accusation, causing this opera, (which had been successfully running the Italian opera circuit in its first five years), to quickly disappear from the Italian opera scene (although it was revived in Germany and even Philadelphia, Pennsylvania well into the 1930s). Ironically, it was the Germanic nature of the score which proved its downfall. The Italian old guard smelled Wagnerian blood, and admittedly, the orchestration here will immediately be recognizable as saturated in Teutonic textures from the first bar.

Cassandra has been recorded, in 2000, from a live concert performance in, of course, Montpellier, France, and has had its most recent revival in 2011 at Catania, Sicily. Given that we all know who Richard Zarathustra Strauss is and no one probably remembers Gnecchi, let us explore this forgotten work, because why else am I running this blog?

SETTING: Argos, just after the Trojan War. Cassandra (mezzo-soprano, just as in Berlioz!) is of course the daughter of Priam and Hecuba of Troy, but this opera depicts what happens after she is captured by Agamemnon (tenor) and ends up being murdered by his jealous wife Clytemnestra (soprano) who is herself carrying on an affair with Egisto (baritone) whom she convinces to murders Agamemnon.

My apologies as I will be using both the English and Italian forms of the character names throughout the review interchangeably.

Sorry, apparently the owner has made this available only on YouTube.

LOOK OUT FOR:

PROLOGUE: (10 minutes)

0: The ten minute long prologue (almost more of an overture with chorus and soloist) immediately lets us know that we are in Wagnerian waters **. Heavily Teutonic orchestration and traces of Richard Strauss attack like the spray of a stormy sea (we are surrounded by the Furies after all). The first few bars will remind one of Elektra, but otherwise the sound world is strictly Italian, and moves very quickly in spite of its length. We do get some lyric calm from the bass-baritone Prologue, but otherwise it is stormy as we go over part of the according of the Fall of Troy and how Agamemnon stole Cassandra away as the city burned, bringing her to Argos in spite of her (ever ignored) prophecies that such an act will cause both their deaths. The finish is brilliantly over the top, with the sopranos and altos on exposed open chord octaves and a thunder machine (the high sopranos on an A# for twelve seconds).

PART I: Argos. (41 minutes)

3: O morte, tu soavissima figlia di idii The chorus of Argonites are heard in the distance **, dreamily floating about on the sea of orchestral froth. Slow, but a nice quiet before the storm.

10: Mo, non propiziarie preci! Clytemnestra waits for Agamemnon to return in a massive aria **. She is most unhappy, mostly for the whole sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia right before going to war with Troy thing, but she has also shacked up now with Aegisthus.

18: O preci e inutili scongiuri She embarks on a long duet with her lover Egisto *** who tells her that Agamemnon is returning.

29: E’ tardi! Ascolta! The chorus announces the return of Agamemnon **; a minor musical explosion.

32: O bel cielo dell’Argolide Agamemnon embarks on a rather striking aria as he greets the Argonites *** with Egisto making comments in the background. Surprisingly not a great tune, but magnificent nevertheless, running to the end of the act (nine minutes). Agamemnon declares that he is going to marry Cassandra, which more than annoys Clytemnestra.

PART II: Argos. (45 minutes)

1: Auleti, a gonfie gote The bridal chorus sopranos and altos **.

3: O labbra, dite laudi! Agamemnon embarks on another grand tenor love song *** climaxing on a high B-flat. Clytemnestra then meets Cassandra.

16: Egisto! Infausto in mare After a lot of furious mezzo from Cassandra (rather impressive since this is her first outing in the score, yes, this late!) it is Egisto himself who shows up and stops the show for a rather noble sounding aria **.

20: Oreste, Oreste tu? Agamemnon comforts his son Orestes and daughter Elektra **. What surrounds this bit, on either side, are the two most boring (albeit brief) sections in the opera, but the aria itself is nice and has a childlike innocence to it even if it is obvious filler. Not that any of it is bad, but this was the one time in the opera when I zoned out.

28: Al porto! Clytemnestra tells Egisto not to go too far as a rather brilliant orchestral march is played **. The male chorus comes on to it, as does the female chorus with a nice serenade.

32: Balena! Cassandra predicts all that will happen: that she and Agamemnon will be murdered by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus ***. A Fate arrives, silently, but is seen by the chorus.

38: Salgon le mirre Agamemnon comes on with a rather heroic sounding song ***, this turns into a canon with the chorus and the two women, just before he is murdered by Egisto.

41: Cosi e morte Agamemnon The playout ***: Clytemnestra declares that Iphigenia is avenged but Cassandra goes full Maria Stuarda on her accusing her of both adultery and incest. Clytemnestra stabs her, but Cassandra cries out for Oreste (the final words in the libretto for soloist as Apollo cruelly gives her one last realization that matricide awaits her killer). The orchestra and chorus take over (the women pulling off a chromatic repeat of their open chord from the prologue). It just sort of ends in the most appropriately abrupt way.

Death of Cassandra by Clytemnestra, modern rendering of Greek original.

COMMENTS:

The opera is brilliant. Even Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni, who is usually not the best soprano in the world, is at her top form here as Clitennestra. Although it is true that the orchestration is blatantly Teutonic, the vocal music is rather strictly within the confines of Italian operatic tradition. Only the opening and conclusion of the work actually resembles more modern concepts of music (the ending is most closely relative to Elektra). The rest, is actually rather brilliant late-19th century Italian opera with traces of Catalani and Wagner. The prologue is an obvious bit of Wagnerian homage, but the starkness of the finale actually gives it a bit of an air of antiquity.

It is possible that Richard Strauss was influenced by this opera when writing Elektra but the two are so completely different apart from some vague modernisms here and there that are reflected in Strauss. The rest of the work is totally different. Gnecchi, for instance, has a much firmer grasp on the tenor voice than Strauss ever demonstrated, and this is displayed well by Alberto Cupido. The heroine is a mezzo, depicted here by Georgian Tea Demurishvili, something anathema to the soprano-lover Strauss, the villains are a soprano and baritone pairing, which would make little sense to Strauss. So the vocal distribution is outside of the methodology of Richard Strauss. There is also a firm emphasis on the female voices in Elektra which is mostly absent here, except the chorus, which is dominated by the soprano and alto sections and their long-held open chords which leave a long-lasting impression. Perhaps there would be more similarities if the work were not obviously in three parts: the prologue, followed by what is technically a single act in two parts. It is about the same length as Elektra, but the intermission fifty minutes in spares it from too close a comparison. However, I think I can say that this is about as good as Elektra.

I must commend conductor Enrique Diemecke here for bringing out the best from the Orchestre National de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. His blending of the Germanic and Italianate elements in the score, while never allowing either to dominate, made the execution of the performance here (a concert from 2000) come off perfectly when it could have become mashed potatoes with a less skilled, or focused, conductor.

Admittedly, there is little plot. It is a situation, but the same could be said for the Oresteia itself.

A neglected alpha plus.

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