GNECCHI:  Cassandra (Tragedy with a Prologue and Two Parts).
Nikola Mijailovic, baritone (Il Prologo); Alberto Cupido, tenor (Agamennone); Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni, soprano (Clitennestra); Tea Demurishvili, mezzo-sop (Cassandra); Arnold Kocharyan, baritone (Egisto); Pierre Lebon (Oreste); Andzella Kirse, mezzo-sop. (Una CoËfora), Jean-Marc Ivaldi, baritone (Il Fazionario del porto/Il Navarca); Latvian Radio Chorus; Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon National Orch/Enrique Diemecke, cond.

AGORÁ MUSICA AG 260.2 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT:  51:06 & 45:03


Vittorio Gnecchi's Cassandra initially seemed headed for certain success. Toscanini himself conducted the 1905 Bologna premiere, but the Byzantine machinations of Italian musical politics foreshortened the piece's Italian performance history, and forced Toscanini to break off relations with the composer. The occasion of Salome's 1906 Italian debut inadvertently set the stage for a scandal, when Gnecchi offered Richard Strauss the piano-vocal score of Cassandra. When both Cassandra and Strauss's new Elektra both were performed in Dresden during the 1908-9 season, "surprising similarities" (as the booklet puts it) were noted between the two operas. Strauss's stature resulted in the Italian composer's being accused of plagiarizing Elektra, written four years later! Despite high-profile foreign advocacy -- a 1911 Vienna performance with Maria Jeritza, conducted by Mengelberg; the 1914 American premiere featuring Rosa Raisa - the damage was done, and both Gnecchi and his opera faded into obscurity.

Radio France's 2000 exhumation of Cassandra indicates that the furore was not only unfair but unjustified. Perhaps the overlapping subject matter -- within Aeschylus's Oresteia, Strauss's opera represents the "sequel" to Gnecchi's -- predisposed listeners to exaggerate the musical resemblances. If you know Elektra, Gnecchi’s opening musical gesture -- an ominous three-note fanfare, followed by orchestral turbulence -- will seem shockingly familiar. Some of the orchestral interludes sound very Straussian, particularly (as at the end of Act I) when the horns come prominently into play; so do the sidling chromatic harmonies at the entry of Electra and Oreste, here young children.

But, as a totality, Gnecchi's opera is unmistakably Italian in idiom and spirit. The fullness created by the clear, warm choral sonorities in the Prologue and Act I opening conjures a different world from Strauss' darting solo strands. Clitennestra and Egisto, transmuted here into a soprano and baritone, are not Strauss's decrepit hedonists but, appropriately for the chronology, youthful adulterers, expressing their illicit ardor in an impassioned, lyrical duet. The quietly proud brass chorale marking Agamennone's entry contrasts with Strauss's more contrapuntal deployments, while the layering of voices in the ensuing ensemble is a familiar Italian technique. The splashy tutti beginning Act II sounds like a more opulent version of Mascagni. Where Gnecchi and Strauss achieve some similarity of mood, brooding or craggy, they do so by very different means.

The Radio France production is quite good. Enrique Diemecke's conducting combines the best features of the German and Italian schools - the former in his feeling for instrumental sonority, the latter in his willingness to give the music its head and to breathe with his singers. He shapes the music to highlight the dramatic moments - only the change of mood at Clitennestra's entry oddly lacks juice. He draws excellent playing from the Montpellier orchestra: convincingly Italianate in style, but more polished than the customary Italian pit band.

The casting is mostly from strength. The prophetess Cassandra doesn't even appear until the second act, but comes to dominate it; the final curtain falls at her cries of "Oreste! Oreste!" (another resemblance to Strauss!), predicting doom for Clitennestra and Egisto. Tea Demurishvili commands her limited stage time with a big, juicy dramatic mezzo, Slavic rather than Italianate in its bright, squillante timbre and quick vibrato. She doesn't inflect the music or text in any particular detail, but she phrases intelligently and invests her lines with plenty of dramatic energy, conveying real sorrow at her vision of Agamennone’s death.

As indicated, Clitennestra and Egisto here fulfill the "young lovers" function. Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni, an experienced dramatic coloratura, is a notch lighter than the dramatic soprano the music seems to demand. Her overmouthed vowels on her entry sound like an attempt to simulate a bigger vocal presence; her invocation to the sea goes screechy up top. But she makes the most of her resources, filling out and inflecting her lines with style, playing with dark, rich colors in the low range, and really feeling such musical points as the change to the major in the love music. Opposite her, Arnold Kocharyan inhabits Egisto with a liquid, expressive baritone, marred only by the occasional rough lunge into the top.

Alberto Cupido should be a terrific Agamennone: his ringing, full-throated, manly tenor ideally suits the lofty, regal pronouncements of his arrival. But, from the start, the hint of a beat in his voice suggests that he's pressing to put out a sound of the right amplitude. As he forges on through the role's tricky high tessitura, the beat becomes a full-scale wobble, and the tone becomes trying and yowly.

Still, with the opportunity to discover a "lost" work, giving an Italianate slant to "Classical" themes generally pre-empted by Germans, my reservations must be minor. If you love Italian opera, particularly in the post-Puccini, verismo-influenced style, you owe it to yourself to hear this -- you won't be disappointed.