Il Piccolo Marat

Recordings of ancient performances exist, though, and everyone is really
excited to hear it, with its blood-and-skullduggery-defeated-by-true-love
French Revolutionary plot, and you gather your forces, and rehearse to a
fare-thee-well, and then it happens: the lead tenor in the big title role
withdraws due to a death in the family. Okay, hardly the first time
that’s happened, there’s still two weeks, you can dig up another
tenor, and you do. But then the baritone in the impossibly evil
villain’s part (and in verismo opera, it’s the villain who makes
the machine run, more than almost anything else), falls ill and cannot sing,
and you have mere days to find a baritone capable of learning a long role, to
say nothing of performing it Monday night. And you find one, and he can
handle Scarpia, so he can probably handle this. And then, the day of the
performance, the third male lead, another baritone, has to pull out …
and there is no time for anyone to learn this thing now, and no one on earth
knows it … but a young singer of no less than three other small roles
says he’s been following the sick man’s music and he could give
it the old Bastille try. And you give it to him, and smile when the audience
shows up, and out of the corner of your mind, the sole corner that remains
sane, you vow to rip the soprano’s head off if she so much as murmurs
of her rampaging case of bubonic plague, but no, she is a lamb, she is in
excellent health and ready to rock, and by all the Muses (but especially
Thalia, comedy), the show goes on.

Would you have a stroke? Would you retire? Would you call Mel Brooks or
Blake Edwards and try to get them to option this backstage screenplay, far
too unlikely to occur in real life? Or maybe a skit on SNL?

And would the show go on?

On April 13, at Avery Fisher Hall, the show – Teatro
Gratticielo’s concert performance of Mascagni’s Il Piccolo Marat
– went on, and was greeted, at evening’s end, with a standing

The world premiere, in 1921, took fifty curtain calls. Why, then, did
Marat become so rare? I’m told the Grove Dictionary of the Opera blames
its failure to hold audiences on its Fascist librettist. This does not make
sense when reading (and following) the libretto, which is as passionate a
hymn to freedom from tyranny as Fidelio or Tosca. Too, there is a rather
beautiful love duet, a melodious lullaby that recalls the peaceful Easter
music of Cavalleria Rusticana, and a tense climax that lures the audience
into the emotions of the three “good” characters as, desperately,
they assault the unkillable Ogre (English for Orco, the character’s
nickname – so that’s where Tolkien found the word!).

As is customary in verismo, a school that matured as the bourgeoisie
seized political power and its echo in the arts from aristocratic
predecessors, the chorus is a main character in this opera, easily swayed and
ruthless in its bloodthirsty support of hero or villain by turns. The Cantori
New York and the Long Island University Chorus howled gloriously under the
direction of Mark Shapiro; we were right at home, ringside to mob rule.

As is also the rule in operas about the French Revolution (think Andrea
Chenier or Madame Sans-GÍne), there were innumerable small parts –
which proved convenient when one singer of three of them, Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee,
earned a needed promotion to the almost-lead role of the gentle Carpenter,
not too sensitive to design death ships but queasy when the Ogre wants him to
build them. Joshua Benaim was worthy and forthright as a Soldier sent to
investigate the Ogre – a by no means easy role, designed for a Pertile
or Del Monaco sound, to give heroic voice to the Revolution during the
opera’s early scenes, when the title character, the Piccolo Marat, must
conceal his real feelings to win the Ogre’s confidence. Alfred Barclift
and Hugo Vera showed promise onstage playing offstage voices. (Versatility is
the name of this game.)

Richard Crawley, in the title role, effectively concealed his noble self
and warmed up the while in order to sing a passionate duet with Paula
Delligatti, as Mariella, the Ogre’s unhappy niece, and then burst out
like a Cavaradossi “Vittoria” when the time came. Brian
Jauhiainen was less overwhelming as the monstrous Ogre. Neither gentleman
indicated, however, by any hesitancy or misstep, how recently they had first
encountered this music: these were trim, professional performances and we
were all very grateful to have them. Delligatti has an expressive spinto,
perhaps less than ideal to the explosions of a Butterfly or Tosca but
probably ideal for Li˙ or Maddalena. Her lullaby, perhaps the opera’s
only excerptable number (another reason for the work’s obscurity), was
serene and charming.

Conductor David Wroe, who perhaps rehearsed with the singers who
cancelled, rather bashed his way through the score. It’s a large score,
all right, and the music should be loud, but not holding back in a hall as
orchestrally focused as Fisher is a disservice to the singers, who were often
inaudible at the opera’s high points.

John Yohalem

image_description=Pietro Mascagni
product_title=Pietro Mascagni: Il Piccolo Marat
product_by=Il Piccolo Marat: Richard Crawley; L’Orco: Brian Jauhiainen; Mariella: Paula Delligatti; Il Carpentiere: Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee; Il Soldato: Joshua Benaim; Una voce basso: Alfred Barclift; Una voce tenore: Hugo Vera. Teatro Gratticielo Orchestra, conducted by David Wroe. Teatro Gratticielo at Avery Fisher Hall, April 13.