UMBERTO GIORDANO L’uomo e la musica by Agostino Ruscillo

504 pp, Torino 2021 click here to order the book

Click here to watch the author speak about his book + click also here

The author is a musicologist with all implied consequences. That means “prima la musica e dopo l’uomo”.  Thus the first part of the title is not fully correct. Ruscillo tells us little on the man Giordano during his creative years. Almost as an aside we get the notice Giordano married Olga Spatz at the end of 1896. She was the daughter of the very rich owner of a series of hotels in Switzerland and Italy; including the Milano Grand Hotel where Giuseppe Verdi died. Where and when did the couple meet? Were there any objections to a marriage with a young composer (who only a few months earlier got some fame after lean years) and a rich heiress? How many children were there and was the marriage a success? Only in a footnote later on we read the Giordano’s had twins (Rina and Ely) plus a son Mario who became famous in his own particular way. Almost as an afterthought we get the notice Giordano, always interested in recorded sound, became artistic director of the famous shellack Fonotipia series. Many an opera lover is a collector and Fonotipias rank high in our collections of Rubinis, Preisers, Court Opera, Club 99, Oasis etc. What were Giordano’s priorities as artistic director? Whom did he engage or stimulate? At what fees? Not a single word. The composer’s successes were almost over when the author finally digs deeper helped by Giordano’s diaries though he treats them with care.

Mussolini’s reign started in 1922 and he was conscious Italian opera was one of the means he could use for political gains all over the world. Puccini who sympathized from the start with fascism died in 1924. That left Mascagni and Giordano as the two composers who could claim universal fame. Lesser lights as Alfano, Zandonai, Pizzetti, Mulé and the at the time largely forgotten Cilea (a youth friend of Giordano) didn’t bask in the many favours (honours and money) the regime offered. Giordano accepted everything though keeping for a time his distance while Mascagni eagerly sucked up all privileges returning them when a few times he conducted in black party shirt. But even Giordano played his part: in 1932 he composed a new Inno for chorus and orchestra which for a moment was meant to replace the official royal hymn and the Giovinezza (a 1909 song celebrating youth refashioned after the war as party hymn). The words were rewritten by Mussolini himself. Four years later Giordano composed an Inno Imperiale to celebrate the fact Italy had invaded and conquered Ethiopia. King Vittorio Emmanuele got the title of emperor. Only in 1937 did Giordano become an official member of the fascist party. According to the author he did it because his son Mario risked a long stay in prison for an immense fraud that shook Italy. Giordano directly appealed to Mussolini and got his son free after a short stay in jail. Olga died in 1940. Two years later uncle Umberto remarried with niece Sara De Cristofaro; daughter of his sister Letizia. He got special dispensation from the Catholic church. In vain his children tried to obstruct this marriage; going even so far in calling their niece the daughter of a Jew.

Even in a book that focuses on music one would have loved to have some photographs but we get only musical annotations. Mr. Ruscillo sins too in his prodigal use of footnotes. As a historian I’m used to notes under the main text (Indeed I don’t like many pages of notes at the end of a book where you often haven’t the courage to look them up) but still this is footnoting in the grand style some university professors impose upon their students: footnotes on every page; sometimes as long as the main text.

A better and more correct title of the book would have been: “The operas of Umberto Giordano”. This is a thorough and full analysis of the composer’s work. Piece by piece is meticulously analysed: from Giordano’s interest in the source of subject to the many and sometimes difficult negotiations with librettists and publisher Sonzogno and finally a discussion in detail of each act and its translation into music. Here are many interesting titbits to be found. Giordano often chose subjects he already knew many years before he started working on it. Example: Fedora which he had seen as an eighteen year old in French with Sarah Bernhardt. He immediately wrote playwright Victorien Sardou to ask for his permission to write an opera. The Frenchman even replied asking for a little bit of patience: “On verra”.

Giordano started his operatic career with “Marina” in the famous 1889 contest that gave the world Cavalleria Rusticana. Giordano finished 6th (73 contestants). There was promise enough that publisher Edoardo Sonzogno took him under his wings and paid him just enough to survive while working on a new opera. Marina was never published and we don’t know if Giordano recycled some music. His real start was “Mala Vita”, a three act sordid realistic drama of low life in Naples. It got the 25 year old composer good notices. It had several productions and was even translated in German. There is a DVD and Cd-recording that proves the composer from Foggia has a melodious vein and  -typical for his whole output- a very fine sense of theatrical drama. Giordano ‘s operas can sometimes look bland on paper or sound not overly interesting on recordings but in the theatre they often make an impression while operatic scores by more renowned composers leave one cold when seen (e.g. Schubert).

Click here for a filmed interview with the composer

Though Giordano belonged to Italy’s “giovane scuolo” he very much liked dramatic stories with a historical background for “couleur locale”. His next throw “Regina Diaz” is an example. It deals roughly with the same story as Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan and Sonzogno vainly speculated on the merits of a libretto written by Menasci and Targioni-Tozzetti of Cavalleria fame. The première was a dismal failure and no second performance was given. A few copies of the libretto exist but the composer destroyed the whole score. Many years later his second wife told that at least a love duet was recycled: “Ora soave” in the second act of Andrea Chénier. Sonzogno gave Giordano one last chance and offered him a young and inspiring librettist: Luigi Illica.

Ruscillo offers us fine insights into the genesis of Giordano’s masterpiece. As always librettist and composer didn’t sometimes agree but all in all it went well till the time of the premiere. Then problems arose. One of a librettist’s tasks was to occupy himself with a lot of stage direction; indeed sometimes doubling as what we nowadays know as a producer or a director. But Illica had a better iron in the fire than Chénier. He was co-author with Giuseppe Giacosa of Puccini’s La Bohème which had its first performance two months earlier and the older composer had already proved his worth with Manon Lescaut and was a better bet for commercial success than the composer from Foggia. Illica neglected his duties though Chénier was created at La Scala while Sonzogno was the season’s impresario. In the past I read the story that the tenor’s aria “Colpito qui m’avete-Un di all’azurro spazio” created protests by its left-leaning contents but Mr. Ruscillo doesn’t confirm this. True to form he analyses the score in great detail but is mainly silent on what makes it great, beloved and still a member of the iron repertoire: the white hot melodic inspiration. Though all opera lovers rate Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti higher than Giordano most will agree that the final duet “Vicino a te” is probably the most stirring finale ever written by an opera composer. Chénier was immensely successful with one exception: France. Didn’t republican France  like the story of the murder of a talented young poet during the terror of Robespierre? I don’t know but for a long time French tenors, sopranos and baritones didn’t record one of the fine arias (Thill with “Un di” a pre-war exception). The author doesn’t discuss the later reception story of Chénier which is a pity as an unbelievably amount of scorn was heaped upon the opera by high art critics proving how virtuous they were while the public loved it. I remember the editorial sighing during the fifties and sixties in Opera Magazine when Rosenthal asked his readers which opera not performed in Londen they wanted to see. To his “chagrin” Chénier always came first (while operas by Tippett ranked number one in the category “please, no more”.)

After Chénier Giordano took a rest. A composer wants performances and by 1897 the taste of the (bourgeois) public for smut was temporarily satisfied. He reworked his Mala Vita and got rid of Neapolitan prostitutes in “Il Voto”. He was only 31 when he got his second success: Fedora; an opera that takes its time to settle in on records but works extremely well in the theatre (Ah, Mirella Freni sailing in at the Met and looking and singing gloriously “O grandi occhi lucenti”). The author defends the score very ably and gives interesting details on the difficulties in persuading Sardou to grant the rights. The Frenchman knew his worth and went for the financial jugular. It is possible he realized that sooner or later his reputation wouldn’t rest any more on a well made piece but on the source of inspiration his plays were for opera composers. We all know the name of the tenor who created the role of Loris Ipanoff but Ruscillo reminds us Giordano was not happy with the young talent who still had a lot to learn. Enrico Caruso had to repeat and repeat again some phrases and Giordano even recorded Caruso’s efforts on cylinders (thrown away) to correct his mistakes. Why doesn’t Ruscillo mention that four years later Giordano accompanied Caruso at the piano in the recording of “Amor ti vieto”?

After Fedora Mr. Ruscillo’s ways and mine somewhat separate. He is an ardent defender of Giordano’s next opera: “Siberia”. I admit I have never seen it on a scene and maybe I would be captivated but people who did were not overly impressed and they definitely didn’t like the composer’s many repeats of the song of the Wolga boatmen. Therefore I replayed the recording (I know I wrote one shouldn’t judge on a recording alone) but to me it seems Giordano’s melodic inspiration was flagging. He himself considered Siberia his masterwork but few opera lovers will agree with him. The same can be said of his next throw “Marcella” though the tenor aria is fine. Early this year the Walloon Opera performed Giordano’s short “Mese Mariano” (forty minutes) in an inspired double bill with Suor Angelica. Due to Covid and other reasons I couldn’t attend but the reviews were fine.

It took Giordano five years to compose a “commedia in tre atti”; once more inspired by Victorien Sardou: “Madame Sans-Gêne”; the story of the washerwoman who doesn’t ask captain Buonaparte for the payment of her bills and marries his sergeant (and later Marshall of France) Lefebvre. When the emperor orders the Marshall to divorce his chatty wife she shows Napoleon the old many unpaid bills and tell him she will once again take up her trade. The emperor is moved, offers his arm and parades her before his court. The opera gets extremely short shrift with Ruscillo: barely three pages and I fail to see why. In my opinion it is Giordano’s one great opera after Fedora. The love duet is worthy of Chénier. Caterina’s “Se ce n'el” is as moving as old Madelon’s offer of her grandson in Giordano’s best known opera. Chances are small I’ll ever see it in a theatre but the two recordings (especially the first one with Santunione at La Scala in 1967 though there are cuts which were opened in the Freni recording) reveal a masterpiece. On the contrary Ruscillo devotes long chapters to Giove a Pompeo (in collaboration with Franchetti), La cena dele beffe and Giordano’s last opera Il Re.

The composer lived another twenty years, considered a lot of subjects among them an Enea wanted by Mussolini but apart from some “peccati di vecchiaia” his inspiration was gone. I am not impressed by those late works which only and very rarely are performed. By the twenties Giordano was considered old hat as he virulently defended tonal music while at the same time his strength as a tune smith was gone. One small exception however. I don’t understand why the most beautiful song ever given to a second tenor (serenata “Tornato è maggio” in La cena) was never recorded by first great lyric tenors.

Click here for rare footage of his funeral

All in all, Ruscillo’s book is an important addition to the ranks for those who have scores at their disposal.

Jan Neckers, 25 March 2022