Guglielmo Ratcliff was Mascagni's second opera, coming after the even more obscure Pinotta (1882-1883). Ratcliff would have to wait seven years after its completion before reaching the stage, its premiere taking place at La Scala, no less, in 1895. It was Mascagni's smashing success with Cavalleria rusticana in 1890 that finally generated enough interest in the earlier effort to give it such lavish attention.
The four-act Guglielmo Ratcliff shares a few plot similarities with Lucia di Lammermoor, and the operas' Scottish settings suggest a further influence by that Donizetti operatic staple. The story is grim and bloody: Guglielmo (William) Ratcliff pursues Maria Mac-Gregor, even though her father has rejected his bid for her. After several suitors are killed by him, Ratcliff is mercifully spared by another suitor in a duel, but eventually kills Maria, her father, and finally himself.
While Mascagni's music score is largely unknown today, much of it is worthwhile, if sometimes a bit too gentle for the dark story. The melody he provides for the Act III Intermezzo, for example, is one of his finest creations. The Prelude opening the opera is not as memorable, but it effectively sets the stage for the passionate and grim character of the opera. It is, like the Prelude to Cavalleria rusticana, interrupted for a brief narrative passage, here given by Maria's nurse, Margherita. There is also a lovely Prelude to Act IV that features attractive choral writing. Some listeners, however, may find its gentle loveliness quite incongruous to the bloody action that follows.
Several fine solo numbers are sprinkled throughout the opera, including Ratcliff's attractive "Quando fanciullo ancora," from Act II. Ratcliff's narrative from the ensuing act is also a powerful moment in the opera, as is his Act IV confrontation with Maria, which recalls the similar encounter between Turiddu and Santuzza from Cavalleria. In fact, much of this opera contains snatches of Mascagni's more famous masterpiece, and for that reason listeners fond of Cavalleria should find much of interest in Guglielmo Ratcliff.