Craziness is part of the territory with tenors. Opportunities to see Mascagni's Guglielmo Ratcliff come few and far between, mainly because the title role is an absolute killer for any tenor mad enough to attempt it. Francesco Tamagno, Verdi’s first Otello, refused to touch it when approached to sing the 1895 première. Giovanni Battista De Negri eventually took the role and only around 25 tenors have sung it since. Step forward Sicilian tenor Angelo Villari, crazy enough to tackle Ratcliff for Wexford Festival Opera in a performance – and production – nothing short of triumphant.

Angelo Villari (Guglielmo) and Mariangela Sicilia (Maria) © Clive Barda
Angelo Villari (Guglielmo) and Mariangela Sicilia (Maria)
© Clive Barda

Cavalleria rusticana was Mascagni’s first official opera, a competition winner, yet he had already composed Guglielmo Ratcliff, although it had to wait until after Cav (and L’amico Fritz and I Rantzau) for its première. Mascagni had fallen in love with Andrea Maffei’s Italian translation of Heinrich Heine’s Wilhelm Ratcliff to the point of obsession, reciting the verses while pacing his room at night.

To describe the plot as bloody is an understatement. Set in Scotland, it shares a few similarities with Lucia di Lammermoor. Guglielmo Ratcliff, rejected by Maria MacGregor, has twice sought vengeance by killing her fiancés on the night before their wedding, each time presenting Maria with the blood-soaked wedding ring. Now, a third suitor arrives, Count Douglas, who is duly challenged by Ratcliff. This time, Ratcliff loses the duel, but Douglas spares his life.

Meanwhile, Maria learns from Margherita’s ballad that her mother (Elisa) and Ratcliff’s father (Edvardo) were once in love, but MacGregor discovered their affair and killed Edvardo. Elisa died of grief days later. After this revelation, Guglielmo stumbles into the castle to confront the confused Maria, who tends his wounds, but rejects him once more. Ratcliff then kills Maria, her father and himself.

Mariangela Sicilia (Maria) and Angelo Villari (Guglielmo) © Clive Barda
Mariangela Sicilia (Maria) and Angelo Villari (Guglielmo)
© Clive Barda

Director Fabio Ceresa fully embraces the plot’s Gothic spectacle with an incredibly stylish production. Tiziano Santi’s sets and Giuseppe Palella’s costumes are almost exclusively in ivory, with picture frames dominating the stage, along with silver birches and a bleached fallen tree. Mad Margaret, terrifically sung by angular mezzo Annunziata Vestri, complete with scary white contact lenses, is accompanied by a pair of wolves – spirits of Maria’s two fiancés – one of which clambers across the dining table to deliver Guglielmo’s challenge. Prowling about the set, they’re finally released by Margaret after Guglielmo, post-duel, has a vision of two white deer (the ghosts of Elisa and Edvardo, which also stalk the production). In Act IV a giant silver mirror confronts us, the singers doubled by actors… only the ghostly Margaret fails to cast a reflection.

Annunziata Vestri (Margherita) © Clive Barda
Annunziata Vestri (Margherita)
© Clive Barda

Mascagni’s music is pure verismo. In Margherita’s opening fragment of the recurring ballad, you instantly encounter themes which could slip straight into Cavalleria rusticana. Like his fellow student Puccini, Mascagni often doubles the vocal line with woodwinds. Full-blooded melodies burst forth and characters declaim dramatically. It is a flawed opera. We don’t really meet Maria properly until the final act. The opera contains four long monologues – MacGregor revealing the backstory to Douglas in Act I, Margherita’s ballad in Act IV, with two long scenes for Guglielmo in between. But then, Il trovatore relies hugely on characters engaging in lengthy narrations, with most of the action happening off-stage! Mascagni often claimed that Guglielmo Ratcliff was better than Cav and it remained his favourite work.

Wexford has assembled a fabulous cast, led by Villari’s astounding Guglielmo. Mascagni sets the tessitura for the tenor perilously high… and keeps it there all evening, with plenty of trumpeted declamatory high notes to negotiate. Villari hurdled them with ease, his huge, unbuttoned tenor thrilling with its ringing top and vehement delivery. His stamina in maintaining tone quality throughout the evening was astonishing, a few intonation issues apart, yet Villari also demonstrated he could sing softly in Guglielmo’s moments of reflection.

Angelo Villari (Guglielmo) © Clive Barda
Angelo Villari (Guglielmo)
© Clive Barda

The rest of the cast was no less wonderful. Mariangela Sicilia’s Maria displayed a fiery spinto, a really exciting voice, while David Stout was exceptionally fine as Douglas, his baritone rock solid throughout its range. Gianluca Buratto’s cavernous bass lacked something in basso cantante silkiness, but gave dramatic impetus to MacGregor’s Act I monologue. Vestri, on stage through much of the opera as a silent apparition, gave a magnetic performance as Margherita, a touch of unsteadiness, but with gripping delivery of the crucial text.

Holding it all together was young conductor Francesco Cilluffo who commanded the score magnificently, drawing superb playing from the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera. The Act III Intermezzo – Il sogno di Ratcliff (Ratcliff’s Dream) – is a peach, an aching oboe melody, eventually taken up by sweet strings to reach an ecstatic climax. Ecstasy pretty much sums up the evening – a directorial approach that throws itself into the spirit of the work, with whole-hearted performances. It was terrifically done and I’d watch it all over again tomorrow like a shot.

*****