Pietro Mascagni: Il Piccolo Marat (1921)

Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes.

This was the last opera Mascagni wrote from entirely new material. Although two more Mascagni releases would appear over the next fourteen years, both relied largely on pre-existing material. In the case of Pinotta this was a cantata named In filanda, and for Nerone a combination of the aborted but rather magnificent Vistilia project and some modernist gap filling material (some of which is actually self-plagiarized from this opera, particularly act one of both operas) which did not turn out so well. Here, we have some of the first and only instances of Mascagni trying out modernism, bordering on atonality (there are many instances in this score where the accompaniment consists of just whole tones from combinations of woodwind and string instruments, while at the same time this is contrasted with lyrical, even whimsical, music for the two lovers. This contrast within the score is deliberate and the general consensus here is that the modernist music works better than the more romantic material (although I disagree). The title character (a tenor role written for Catalan Hipolito Lazaro, who had created the tenor role in Mascagni’s Parisina) is exceptionally difficult. We shall see!

SETTING: France, the Reign of Terror. There are six main characters (2 women, 4 men), and you need to understand each and their relationships with each other in order to understand the plot at all. Mariella (soprano) is the orphaned ingenue soprano role which would have been played by Olivia de Havilland in a movie version of this story if only Max Reinhardt had gotten approval for his Danton project fifteen years later. She is the niece of the dreaded Orc (bass), the local revolutionary government representative who notoriously tortures and kills mass numbers of people (at the end of act one, prisoners are taken to board a ship which will be scuttled in the harbour in order to drown all of them since the prison is overcrowded). She also happens to secretly be a devout Roman Catholic (this comes up in Act Two). Meanwhile, a mysterious handsome stranger of the tenorial persuasion has taken her fancy, little does she know at first that he is a prince trying to rescue his mother, La Princesse de Fleury (mezzo-soprano), from imprisonment and eventual execution. There are also the otherwise nameless Soldier (baritone) and Carpenter (baritone), and three henchmen for the Orc (the Spy, the Thief, and the Tiger, I can not make these names up) who, along with the Orc, bully the Carpenter, who is forced to help them in their murderous exploits.


ACT 1: A town square, on the left the a Committee Building, on the right a convent which has been transformed into a prison. It is an evening in Autumn. (47 minutes)

0: Vergine, confido nel tuo The opening choral scene * is rather modernist, not atonal, but this is a different Mascagni. It starts off with a hymn to the Virgin Mary by prisoners in the convent, followed by some turmult among a crowd of townsfolk who are starving as Mariella and a mysterious young man show up. When the Orc and his men come out of the Committee Building to see what is going on (the crowd wants to lynch Mariella and the young man for being in possession of food) it is discovered that Mariella was merely trying to bring dinner to her uncle.

9: Io non lo fatto nulla Mariella explains herself (and the basket of food everyone wants) **, in a rather charming piece although it lacks much in the way of a cohesive form. The mysterious young man starts throwing the food to the crowd (to their appeasement).

14: Guarda la plebe The mysterious young man declares that he is a Maratist and wants to join their force, ***. This probably is better for its vocal execution than the music, but it is the first exciting thing in the opera. The young man is enlisted to the acclaim of the crowd that he is the Little Marat (Piccolo Marat).

25: Io non so chi tu sia Another sweet number from Mariella ** before a LOT of plot forwarding recitative as the Orc, Spy, Thief, Tiger, and Carpenter go over the plot to drown some of the prisoners in order to clear out the prison using a boat designed by the Carpenter (this entire section seems to have traces of music that will end up in Act 1 of Nerone). The other four men bully the Carpenter. There really isn’t anything musically interesting in this section, it is just plot forwarding recitative, oddly 19th century sounding to be honest.

34, 35: La mia mano e quella di un soldato/In nome del onore Suddenly, there is one outburst from the Soldier * which resembles an aria and is worth mentioning also for the fact that it also contains traces of music which will end up in Act 1 of Nerone. It turns into a full fledge solo ** but remains very dark. He and the Orc insult one another, but go into the Committee Building. Meanwhile, the Little Marat confirms if a Princesse de Fleury is being held prisoner. She is brought to him and he expresses rather Italianate devotion to his mamma.

39: Con te, mamma, con te! The mother-son duet ** is a severe item, oddly stark (again, concepts which will end up again in Nerone appear) as he goes over the plan to rescue her. It is really more of an aria. It ends with the return of the Soldier and Orc from the Committee Building. The prisoners are led onto the boat (to be drowned), as the Little Marat promises his mother he will save her. This is rather effective theatre (the contrast of hope and certain death) although musically it is rather muted.

ACT 2: The House of the Orc, night, several weeks later. (55 minutes)

0, 7, 17: La mamma ritrovò la bimba abbandonata Mariella embarks on a long song about a mother who finds her lost baby **. It is all of about two minutes before the Carpenter shows up and begs Mariella to intercede with her uncle for him. In a forlorn recitative, they remember what the world was like before the Revolution. He confesses to her that he is spying for the Soldier, and she reveals a statue of the Virgin Mary which she hides behind a portrait of Marat (which prompts a musical climax), swearing by it that she will not betray the Carpenter nor his confidence. This prompts a slightly more pulsating bit for the two * punctuating the generally morose proceedings, although it lasts less than a minute. The sequence up to this point lasts around eleven minutes before Piccolo Marat shows up (much of this is musically ornery, although he is showing his ardent affection for her). He asks the Carpenter if he can hire out his boat, and the two men make an appointment for later that night. The Carpenter leaves, Mariella panics, execution orders are brought in and left. Piccolo Marat goes through the orders and steals some of them. The Orc returns home with his henchmen and they search prisoners for valuables: including the Princess de Fleury. Musically, this is mostly monotonous, but theatrically it is a bit more interesting (although there is a section which will be reshaped into the act one aria for Nero in Nerone). Orc realizes that papers for de Fleury are missing, which angers him and he is about to strike her when the Soldier comes in.

24: I prigionieri in casa tua The Soldier gets a section which sounds a lot like Nerone as the orchestra slowly gets around. It isn’t really all that interesting to be honest *, and it contributes little to the plot other than to get the Orc angry (when the Soldier slips up by declaring that Robespierre is a tyrant) and have the Soldier tied up and thrown into the local river to drown (which prompts some dramatic shouts from the chorus which give the proceedings some pulse at least).

36: Sei tu? Che cosa viene a fare? Left alone with the Prince, Mariella asks him what he is up to (finally) in a rather touching little aria **.

38: Spia!… E lo confessi? The finest passages in the opera are to be found in the climactic duet *** as the Prince slowly convinces Mariella to join him in rescuing his mother and they declare their mutual love for each other, vowing to flee France and make a new life together. It is also one of the longest sections in the opera, some thirteen minutes. It results in an ovation from the audience which lasts for well over a minute, but there are still around three minutes left to the act (this is however, mostly an encore of the end of the act). The lovers hide as the Orc goes up stairs to bed.

ACT 3: The bedroom of the Orc, filled with stolen furnishings both luxurious and poor, later that night, a large window in the back of the room. (25 minutes)

0: A dark and dismal prelude * gets finished off by a mild background chorus of “American Hussars”. Mariella and the Prince break into Orc’s bedroom. A coo-coo is heard, a signal from the Carpenter, and the two men tie the Orc to his bed as he sleeps. Musically, the opera has sort of collapsed at this point, but we have to get through the last twenty minutes of this thing (Mascagni also seems to be quoting act two of Tosca). The Prince gets pen and paper in an attempt to force the Orc into signing a safe conduct. The Orc wakes up, the Prince threatens him with a dagger, and Mariella forges the safe conduct. Although a group of citizens do hear the cries of the Orc, they are sent away safely by Mariella, who tells them that her uncle has merely had a bad dream, and to get drunk at the local pub. Mariella begs the Prince to leave, but Orc takes out a pistol and shoots him. The Prince tells Mariella to get his mother and run, which she does, as he watches her from the window.

15: Ah! Maledetto! Dove t’ha colpito? But before she goes, Mariella gets a two and a half minute long aria **.

17: E la mamma? The eight-minute showdown ***: 1) The Prince sends off Mariella, who does most of the real work off-stage (to audience acclaim at least) 2) The Orc is about to finish off the Prince when the Carpenter arrives and bludgeons the former to death with a candelabra 3) The Carpenter gets the Prince to his feet, and they flee the scene to an effecting closing sinfonia. Curtain.


One may be hard pressed to believe the reality that this was, barring the immortal Cav, the most successful opera Mascagni ever wrote, receiving some 450 performances in the eighteen years leading to the Second World War. It has since mostly disappeared, apart from advocacy in the 1960s by the famous Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani (who is 97 as of this writing) and her husband, the Italian-Russian bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (who died in 1991). A few sporadic productions in Europe and finally, in 2009, in the United States, mark an otherwise mixed work.

The best passages certainly belong to the tenor (a challenging role among Mascagni’s already usually difficult tenor roles) and the soprano. Although the Orc is probably the most interesting of the characters theatrically (if one is able to find the telecast of a live performance), the Soldier is really the only one of the supporting cast who gets any stand out music. The rest is verismo, French Revolution-style, without much melody and a lot of bloodiness, not far from what Mascagni himself said of the opera, and comparatively thankless.

The title character may be a good planner, but he hardly actually does anything else. It is Mariella who forges the safe conducts for everyone and she who actually rescues the Princess. It is the Carpenter who kills the Orc, and just narrowly saves the Prince from being finished off by the villain. The Orc probably also has more character development than the Prince, and seems to be a rather interesting baddie (if only I could SEE this opera!).

As I said, it is a mixed work. A few passages are attractive and worth taking a listen at the entire opera, but these do not make a work that is the sum of its parts, and there is little, other than the lovers’ music, which one will actually find enjoyable. As a stage play however, I can see the appeal of the work. It is a return to the rescue operas of the 1790s and 1800s (Fidelio set in France without the inadvertent Lesbianism).

The best section is by far the act two love duet, with the third act coming off more as an epilogue (its brevity, 25 minutes compared to two acts of over 50 minutes, contributes to this further). However, the finale includes some rather effective orchestral accompaniment. The first act is, however, the most consistent in terms of musical inspiration (generally being at the same level of good inspiration), with most of the middle of act two being rather dull and mostly just accompanying the action, as is much of the warm up to Mariella’s departing aria and the finale in act three)

Although when it is bad it is boring, when Il Piccolo Marat is good it is good old romantic adventure drama. Mascagni is effective with the basic situation of the rescue and the love interest, and most of the boring parts are generally the political, period setting rhetorical passages. Each act has at least one high drama sequence, a few, such as the prisoners being led out to drown at the end of act one as the Prince promises to rescue his mother, being rather effective theatrically. Although not a great night at the theatre, it will probably be a satisfying night overall. A beta, but one that is definitely worth checking out.

Also, who exactly is the Soldier anyway?

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