Sog.: Alfa (Alberto Fassini), Fausto Maria Martini. Scen.: Alfa. F.: Giogio Ricci. Mus.: Pietro Mascagni. Int.: Lyda Borelli (contessa Alba d’Oltrevita), Andrea Habay (Tristano), Ugo Bazzini (Mephisto), Giovanni Cini (Sergio), Alberto Nepoti. Prod.: Cines · DCP. D.: 45’. Tinted, toned and stencil.
The story of Rapsodia satanica is as agonizing and troubled as the fate of the countess Alba d’Oltrevita, played by the divine Lyda Borelli. Nino Oxilia’s masterpiece was completed in spring 1915 but was not released in theaters until 1917 due to mysterious inside disputes at Cines: that would result in a delay of almost three years in giving the world a film that was the most genuine attempt at making a total work of art for the screen. In deference to the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagnerian fame, the film condenses pictorial quotations that range from Symbolism to the Pre-Raphaelites, literary references to the Faust tradition and Dannunzian decadence, spectacular architectural allusions to art nouveau, all embellished with original music by Pietro Mascagni. Rapsodia satanica, however, was not only a sophisticated and aesthetic compendium of the best artistic movements: it’ s a film in a league of its own with Nino Oxilia’s poetic sensitivity and compositional expertise and Lyda Borelli’s extraordinary performance. She expresses with her body and eyes the controversial aspects of her character, distilling the sensuality of eroticism, the raving hysteria of madness, the dark mood of death.
The restoration of Rapsodia satanica is an extreme case: its reconstruction took place slowly and by degrees under our very eyes. As if a faded rose were regenerating and one petal after another, regaining its freshness in the height of its brilliance. An unexpected miracle was slowly taking shape, progressively and irreversibly. A slow backwards decomposition, a patient re-composition. As if this masterwork did not wish to give itself to our eyes all at once. Might it have been too blinding?
In the beginning this copy in black and white was rather ugly… And yet it was clear that we were dealing with a splendid film. Then the music by Mascagni composed specially for Oxilia’s film was discovered. A new surprise. Then to this – was this the last stage? – the discovery of a good copy in colour! Rapsodia Satanica, from the point of view of colour, places us in front of another problem, because – a unique case in the history of cinema? – the use of stencil colouring is not alternative to that of toning and imbibition, but contemporaneous. On monochrome images we thus have coloured detail […], the result is extraordinary. Here colour fully realises the explicit ambition of the opera to be a total art.
Eric de Kuyper, Rapsodia satanica ou le frémissement des couleurs, “Cinegrafie”, n. 9, 1996
Piero Mascagni’ score for Rapsodia Satanica
Despite having heard somewhat truncated versions of Rapsodia Satanica over the last 30 years, I hadn’t a clue that it’s composer, Pietro Mascagni, invented an approach that most film composers only began to discover more than 10 years later. Even then they were not executed to such perfection as was Mascagni’s first and only attempt at cinema. The general assumption about this score had been, like Camille Saint-Saëns and his 1908 score to L’Assassinat du duc de Guise, that the composer is sufficiently required to paint a general tableau to each scene, and it’s obligations to synchronization are to start, and (hopefully) end, together. Whatever happens in the middle is gravy. Mascagni, instead, took the task far more seriously than was expected of him, and carefully wrote one of the most intricate and delicate accompaniments in the history of cinema, both sound and silent. His score goes well beyond the visual perception, but contains character studies that seem to clearly define the mostly hidden conditions of their personality. This is the gift an opera composer brings to cinema. And even more importantly, a gift to early cinema where the art of in-depth character portrayal has yet to hit it’s stride.
The level of intricacy this score contained had only became apparent to me while working with the original 1915 piano reduction, made by Mascagni himself, playing against the latest restoration of the film made by Cineteca di Bologna. With these elements, in hand with a set of original 1915 parts used by orchestra members (under the baton of Mascagni in 1917), and a reconstituted score made by Maestro Marcello Panni in 2006, I strove to re-create (to the best of my ability) what Mascagni’s intentions were.
There have been a number of performances of this score with live accompaniment since the re-discovery of the film almost 20 years ago. The most common misconception about the score is that there is simply too much music. This view set an unfortunate precedent of making large cuts in the score in order to make the music “fit” the length of the film. However why would Mascagni, who, by all historical accounts, injected so much precision in his synchronization while composing Rapsodia Satanica, have written so much more music than film? The reason for this misguided conclusion is quite simple; Mascagni’s tempo markings are vague. Nowhere in the full score, nor in the piano reduction, did he give any written visual synchronization indications. Nor did Mascagni give a single metronome mark. This makes for intensive score analysis on the part of the conductor to find out where each few seconds of music should start and end, how fast or slow it should go, and for how long. The only clues the composer leaves in this regard are in the actual staves of the score itself, and in the set of original parts.
Within this jigsaw of tempi, dynamics and expression, thankfully there are a few obvious points to help guide the interpreter. The recurring appearances of Mephisto, the affirmations of Sergio and the 2 piano solos by Lyda Borelli are a handful of the (heaven-sent) musical markers to which a conductor can begin to decipher the layout of the score, but in between these moments live the some of the most important and exquisite moments in film-music history. There is not a visual or symbolic moment (or movement) that passes unnoticed by Mascagni, and the depth of reflection within his score, is startling. The use of inverted and doubled thematic material (the 2 brothers), mirrored intervals (Borelli’s final scene with mirrors) and pure musical leitmotif (symbiosis of the 2 butterflies and Borelli’s flight on the terrace) plays heavily in Mascagni’s designation of material. Even the reading of inter-titles was not left untouched. In Part One, there is an inter-title that reads four exchanged lines between Tristan and Sergio. Mascagni has a musical phrase for each of the four lines, so that when the viewer sees the interaction between the arguing brothers, each musical phrase recalls what the inter-title said, and is therefore compelled to remember the lines word for word as if the actors voices themselves are heard. I have never before seen inter-titles, often the most mundane features of silent film, treated with such delicate care by a musician. Every expression, dismantled shoulder and fluttering veil has it’s place in the score. The question is just a matter of finding it.
And for each of these passages comes a massive assemblage of indications for tempi. In the 6-minute prologue itself there are 47 tempo changes, and nearly 400 overall. The outcome and effect of these careful manipulations is a score that has the overwhelming sense of freedom and liberty from tempo, the exact OPPOSITE of what this score is, utterly strict and precise. But it is from the set of the 1915 parts that gave me the most information in regards to metronomic indications. The changes Mascagni made in performance (and written in the player’s hand on the parts themselves), such as removed repeat signs, full stops, alterations of beat-patterns from three to one and even string bowings, just to name a few, all help determine the speed and effect of each passage. In the end, amassing of these seemingly endless and miniscule indicants gives you an overall picture of how the score was conducted by Mascagni himself, and shows you how an unmarked (or in this case, lost) full score can mislead the conductor without it. Only when a score of this caliber is anchored to its film correctly, does the clarity of musical symbolism truly exhibit composer’s cognition, and more importantly, his intentions as an artist.
I am deeply indebted to the Mascagni Foundation, Mascagni’s publisher, Curci, the Cineteca di Bologna and to Maestro Marcello Panni whose invaluable score reconstitution helped me enormously.
The 4K digital restoration was produced from a tinted, toned and hand-painted positive print belonging to the Cinémathèque Suisse. The original score, composed by Pietro Mascagni, allowed for the correct reconstruction of the film. The restoration was promoted by Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna and the Cinémathèque Suisse.