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8.573074 - MANCINELLI, L.: Scene veneziane / 6 Intermezzi sinfonici per la tragedia Cleopatra (excerpts) (Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
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Luigi Mancinelli (1848–1921)
Scene veneziane • Cleopatra


Of all the composers who played a part in the late nineteenth-century renaissance of Italian instrumental music, Luigi Mancinelli is the least well-known, perhaps because he devoted more of his professional life to conducting than to writing his own music. Born in Orvieto in 1848 into a mercantile family, Mancinelli taught himself to play the piano. His passion for music soon led him away from the career in commerce his father expected him to follow: instead he ran away to Florence where he studied cello and composition. He became a cellist in the city’s Teatro Pergola orchestra, later playing with the orchestras of the Argentina and Apollo theatres in Rome. In 1874 he moved to Perugia to become first cellist and repetiteur at the Teatro Morlacchi. That same year he stood in at a performance of Aida for conductor Emilio Usiglio (who had got roaring drunk an hour before the curtain was due to rise and, when urged to prepare himself to take to the podium, had replied: “What Aida? I am Radamès, dead and gone; leave me here in my vault”!). Mancinelli thus made his conducting début (although in fact he had also presided over a performance of Verdi’s Luisa Miller in 1873), and succeeded not only in winning critical acclaim but in catching the eye of the publisher Ricordi and the impresario Jacovacci, who were quick to engage him as the Teatro Apollo’s assistant conductor for the 1875 season and principal conductor a year later, when he opened the season with Spontini’s La vestale. The charisma he brought to the latter work and the subsequent success of his performances of Gomes’s Il Guarany earned him further praise from the critics, as did the Roman premières of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and Boito’s Mefistofele (both 1877). He soon consolidated his work in the opera houses of Rome, receiving much recognition, including compliments from Wagner on his interpretation of Lohengrin and warm congratulations from Verdi.

In 1886, having spent six years at the Apollo in Rome and another five thereafter at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Mancinelli travelled abroad for the first time, becoming chief conductor at Madrid’s Teatro Real, where he remained until 1893. He also presided over nineteen spring seasons at Covent Garden, between 1887 and 1915, as well as conducting at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, between 1893 and 1901, and at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires (1907–1911). He died in Rome in 1921.

Mancinelli’s talents and ambitions were not limited to the domain of conducting: he also found time to compose a series of sophisticated works that revealed his awareness of the latest innovations in orchestral writing. In keeping with the idea that “a conductor ought to be a composer, or at least ought to be able to compose”, Mancinelli experimented with all genres, from tone poems to chamber music, opera to sacred works. He had written a few romances in his youth, but his first works of real substance were two sets of incidental music for Pietro Cossa’s tragedies Messalina (1876) and Cleopatra (1877). The popularity of his Intermezzi per la Cleopatra was enhanced by the appearance of his lively orchestral suite entitled Scene veneziane (Scenes of Venice), a work stamped with a strong authorial personality. Composed in 1877, and first performed in Madrid in 1889, it depicts in five brief scenes a couple meeting, falling in love and experiencing various ups and downs before the joy of a happy ending.

The opening movement, Carnovale (Allegro brillante), begins with a high fortissimo trill on the strings, into which bursts a “bacchanal” phrase from the brass; a carnival celebration is in full flow, with masked partygoers parading before our eyes. Amid the festive atmosphere of the introduction we hear a hint of the leitmotif that represents the couple’s love throughout the work. Having yielded the main theme to the wind, the violins deftly take it up again, while an insistent bass-line motif injects new energy into the scene. The second movement, Dichiarazione d’amore—Declaration of love—(Andante sostenuto), represents the dialogue between the two lovers by means of a melody for oboe and cor anglais, which is underpinned by muted strings.

The following scene, portraying the lovers’ flight to the coastal town of Chioggia, Fuga degli amanti a Chioggia (Scherzo), is particularly evocative, as Mancinelli adeptly creates a sense of agitation and confusion to reflect the events being depicted. This is a movement full of descriptive effects: the lovers are accompanied on their flight by the whistling of the wind and the sound of the sea; rapid quadruplets on the first violins in thirds, reinforced by staccato notes from the second violins, conjure the sound of a tempest, and the love motif is interrupted by the darkness of nightfall. Then the storm abates, the wind drops and calm reigns as the music dies away into a sweet, uninhibited statement of the lovers’ phrase. Their return to the city by gondola is portrayed in the passionate music of Ritorno in gondola (Andante con moto), in which Mancinelli also succeeds in emulating the attractive, lilting rhythm of a barcarolle, although he eschews the traditional 6/8 time signature. Gondoliers’ voices sound above a muted string melody and are echoed by horns, bassoons and double basses; the melody is taken up by the flute before the movement ends in a melancholy love duet. The finale, Cerimonia e danza di nozze (Tempo di marcia religiosa)—Wedding ceremony and dance (Processional tempo)—is full of life and fantasy. It opens with a processional tempo picked out by the strings, above which the priest introduces the wedding ceremony, the organ responding with sacred melodies which appear to be followed by gentle hymn-like tunes, including a psalm setting by Benedetto Marcello. The love motif recurs, then the processional music is heard again before disappearing into the distance to be replaced by dances. A four-part fugal episode on an original theme brings a new splash of colour to the festivities, as the dance of the masked guests is introduced by triangle and cymbals.

Mancinelli’s “symphonic interludes” for Pietro Cossa’s stage works are considered the compositions most representative of his “refined, elegiac and sentimental taste”. Their use of historical elements, shot through with evocative, exotic touches, turn them into elegantly-scored sound frescoes—music in which the heroic tones of symphonic writing alternate with lyrical sections of operatic inspiration.

The Intermezzi per la Cleopatra, first performed at Rome’s Teatro Valle on 20 December 1877, are remarkable for their composer’s mature use of his orchestral material and technical ability to subject the various different thematic units to incisive harmonic and tonal metamorphoses. All in all, this incidental music succeeds in conveying the epic nature of Cossa’s tragedy and adding a powerful, at times even austere, character to proceedings on stage, revealing lessons learned from the German masters, from Beethoven to Liszt and Schumann, and on again to Wagner. It would not be out of place to think of these six interludes (1. Ouverture. 2. Marcia trionfale. 3. Battaglia di Azio. 4. Scherzo-orgia. 5. Andante (Barcarolla) 6. Marcia funebre) as a kind of a tone poem, given the coherent whole they form and the intensity and expressiveness with which they tell the story of Cleopatra.

The Ouverture is a fitting prelude to a tale of love, orgiastic excess and the violence of war. Its key feature is a recurring and constantly varied harmonic motif. Inspired by the central ideas behind the drama rather than trying to summarise its action or depict the many twists and turns of the plot, the overture reflects the clash between an Egyptian civilisation in decline and an increasingly powerful Rome, the love between Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and the inexorable, doom-laden and omnipresent voice of fate. A closing rousing peroration portrays the final struggle between east and west and the downfall of Egypt.

In the third number, Battaglia di Azio (Battle of Actium), lush Romantic orchestration, with full brass as well as strings and wind, brings to life the famous naval battle in the course of which Mark Antony fled with his captivating Egyptian queen, leaving his troops to surrender to the victorious Octavian. First the music evokes the sound of the sea, above which can be heard, in a moment of calm, voices giving orders. The opposing fleets approach one another and battle commences, ships clashing, enemy crews attempting to storm their opponents’ vessels when, at the height of the conflict, Cleopatra’s ships turn and set sail, carrying away their queen who, unable to bear the reality of battle, exclaims: “Son donna, ed ho paura” (I am a woman, and afraid). Mark Antony follows her, choosing love over military honours. After one last effort, Octavian secures victory and, amid the remaining echoes of combat, the love motif from the overture prevails, depicting Mark Antony in Cleopatra’s arms aboard her ship, having abandoned all thoughts of honour and valour to be with her. There are numerous allusions here to Verdian drama, the extended melody and a rhythmic impulse that at times has an almost folk-like feel. Yet Mancinelli’s sophisticated use of the orchestra and his striking harmonic tensions are also in tune with the European symphonic tradition, underlining the fact that he and his contemporaries were trying to make up for centuries of lost time and reinvigorate the world of Italian instrumental music.

Marta Marullo
Translation by Susannah Howe

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