The Autumn of Italian Opera
Allan Mallach
Northeastern University Press

490 pp  2007 pub.

A fascinating book and yet, and yet….a bit too of too little and too late. Mr. Mallach is the author of the very interesting and well written biography of Pietro Mascagni. Last year, Konrad Dryden who had already written a splendid  biography of Zandonai gave us the definitive story of Leoncavallo as well and that book too has earned its place next to Mallach, Budden or Matz (publications on Puccini and Verdi), Ashbrook (Donizetti) etc. All these books belong to the “must have” category if one is a lover of Italian opera. They not only tell an interesting story they also succeed in broadening our interest in lesser known works. In the course of his research on Mascagni Mr. Mallach definitely made an exhausting number of notes which he now reworked for this “Autumn of Italian Opera”. I’m sure there is a lot of revealing information in this new book for the neophyte, for the young collector or the young opera lover. But for those who already bought the afore mentioned books there is a feeling that not everything is new; that quite a lot of other books is rehashed. Chapter 2 Abbiamo un maestro (meant is Mascagni) is simply a shortened retelling of the birth of an opera we already know so well from Mallach’s biography. Other chapters (or part of) tell us of Mascagni and D’Annunzio, the story of the 7 premières of Le Maschere etc. and if one has read Dryden’s Leoncavallo or Budden’s Puccini much that is said here sounds familiar.

Does this mean that one can easily overlook this book ? No, definitely no, as loose ends, interesting stories etc one already knew are now meticulously put in perspective. The chapters on the operatic landscape (publishers, opera houses, librettists) are particularly rewarding. The struggle between Sonzogno and Ricordi with all means fair and foul (mostly foul) is attention riveting reading. One learns that the big houses, still known today, didn’t play the important role one thought. Mr. Mallach often offers eye opening figures on salaries, ticket prices, payments etc. which one will rarely meet elsewhere. He has the good sense in trying to translate those figures to our days. Do not neglect his many interesting notes at the end of the book. Did you know that Verdi was the owner of almost 700 hectares of prime farmland or that there were almost 200 labourers working on his domains ? Only on the influence of singers is Mr. Mallach somewhat weak as apart from a few giants as Caruso most of them are barely mentioned. Still it is known fact that composers often went on their knees to one or another singer, knowing well that a big name could help in establishing a composer’s reputation (witness the pathetic letters Zandonai wrote to Aureliano Pertile). Mallach concentrates his story on the ‘giovane scuole’, which means Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Cilea, Giordano and Franchetti. Some space is devoted to Catalani but apart from a few name droppings more could be  said of Samara, Smareglia, Orefice, Usiglio etc. Thanks to the internet the collecting community is now in far more intense contact than used to be and cd-r exchanges are very common. One surely wants to know more on those almost unknown composers whose works may be rarely performed but one performance  is enough as copies will spread throughout the whole world. Mr. Mallach tells us that the ‘young school’ was something that only lasted a few years. No opera (with Puccini’s works being an exception) composed after 1902 entered the iron repertoire but he also implies there are rightful reasons for that neglect: lack in inspiration, tired formulas, backwardness compared with the daring technique of Debussy or Strauss. Not everything is indeed exalted in later compositions by Italians but anyone who has ever suffered the tedium of Pelléas or Arabella(and this reviewer contrary to most critics is able to understand and speak French and German) can and will be very happy with the melodious and merciful short later operas of Cilea (Gloria) or Giordano (Madame Sans-Gêne and Siberia). And one sighs with relief when listening to the beauties in the recordings of Samara and Smareglia-pieces. It may not be Puccini at its very best but some of these operas are at least well made pieces and they definitely deserve a rehearing and thanks to DVD a re-seeing. Mr. Mallach has read a lot of scores and though he can be severe he also points us to some hidden beauties. Still, I’ve got the impression he sometimes is a little bit too severe. Take Franchetti’s Germania for example. As long as I possessed a few recordings only I completely agreed with Mallach’s judgment (the same goes for Wally). The moment one watches some DVD’s one has to admit that as a complete experience these operas are very rewarding indeed. All in all, the book deserves to be read and I hope either Mr. Mallach or Mr. Dryden will at last give us a biography of Umberto Giordano whose life seems to become more interesting every time I get more information on the composer.

Jan Neckers, Operanostalgia