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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana - melodrama in one act (1890) [74.46]
Santuzza, an attractive peasant girl - Eva-Maria Westbroek (soprano); Turridu, a young peasant - Aleksandrs Antonenko (tenor); Alfio, a carter working in and around the village - Dimitri Platanias (baritone); Lola, Alfio’s wfe - Martina Belli (mezzo); Mamma Lucia, Turiddu’s mother - Elena Zilio (mezzo)
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)
Pagliacci - opera drama in two acts, originally in one act (1892) [78:00]
Canio, leader of a troupe of players - Aleksandrs Antonenko (tenor); Nedda, Canio’s unfaithful wife - Carmen Giannattasio (soprano); Tonio, a deformed member of the troupe, infatuated but spurned by Nedda - Dimitri Platanias (baritone); Silvio, Nedda’s lover - Dionysus Sourbis (baritone); Beppe, a member of the troupe - Benjamin Hulett (tenor)
Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
Director: Damiano Michieletto
Set Designer: Paolo Fantin
Costume designer: Carla Teti
Lighting Director: Alessandro Carletti
Video Director: Rhodri Huw
Audio formats: Dolby Digital, dts Digital Surround. Picture format 16:9
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, Japanese, Korean
rec. December 2015
Picture format: 16:9;
Sound: LPCM Stereo, DTS 5.1 Surround.
Subtitles: English, German, French, Korean, Japanese
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1210D [74.46 + 78.00]

The announcement of this Covent Garden double-bill was greeted by many potential audience members with a mixture of anticipation and foreboding. Anticipation because this would be the first production at London’s Covent Garden of these popular works for nearly thirty years during which many singers of stature would have graced the music. Foreboding because it heralded the return of Director Damiano Michieletto whose production of Rossini’s William Tell the previous June had caused something of a furore in the general press and pretty well universal condemnation among opera cognoscenti. Many were offended by the explicit nature and brutality of a rape scene involving occupying troops and Swiss women. Regrettably, concentration on this last overshadowed criticism of the vacuous nature of the staging and production. The Director obviously found favour with the management of the Royal Opera House seeming intent on having the theatre get nearer to the Regietheater and concept productions that dominate mainland European theatres and have devastated audiences at English National Opera. It is hardly surprising, on this recording, to find the productions to be updated by a century or so to more recent times, albeit ignoring the fact that the biting of ears as a preliminary to battles to the death over women have died out even among the Mafiosi of Sicily these days.

With these two operas, reputed to have launched the verismo school of Italian opera, meaning real life situations not historical or mythological ones, it was not surprising that Michieletto’s concept involved setting the two operas in the same village. Posters being put up on the wall for the visiting players of Pagliacci during Cavalleria Rusticana and the cast of one opera featuring in the other in their original guise rubbed the concept in. Using the stage revolve Cavalleria Rusticana opens outside the town bakery as the crowd looked at the bloodied body of Turridu before going about its business. Views of the inside of the shop show the dough being made and the bread baked in realistic heated ovens. Later, outside, Alfio returns in a period automobile. The gimmicks don’t stop there and did little to set the music or the drama in the context of a supposed real-life situation or to create an atmosphere for the evolution of either story. Major weaknesses in Pagliacci include the gauche staging when Tonio hears Nedda make her assignation with her lover, arranging to leave the troupe of players and run off with him. The wonderful elegiac music of the two intermezzos is spoiled by irrelevant business and visuals.

If the singing had been up to the international standards expected of Covent Garden then much of the gaucheness might have passed muster. As it was there is a significant lack of Italianate tone among the soloists and rather too much vocal mediocrity. As Santuzza Eva-Maria Westbroek is a touch unsteady in her opening, but improves rapidly to bring her full-toned soprano to bear. If I prefer a mezzo in the role that is personal, however she found the necessary vocal power if not the mid-voice vocal allure as the women leave for church and during the Easter service. The paraded Madonna, a wooden effigy is normal at such events, comes to life to point accusingly at the pregnant Santuzza - a little sick, I thought, certainly given the update. After all, illegitimacy in Sicily in the 1990s was just like everywhere else in Europe and of no particular note. Aleksandrs Antonenko is in mediocre form in his singing and characterization and is wooden in his acting. His voice lacks the ringing tone necessary for Canio in Pagliacci. In particular his Vesti la giubba lacks those virtues that Caruso so famously brought to the piece - one that became his de facto signature tune. In the classic baritone roles of Alfio and Tonio, Dimitri Platanias is penny-plain and undistinguished; certainly do not cast your mind back to what Gobbi and Taddei did with the dramatic and sung portrayals in their recordings. Martina Belli’s vampish Lola is well sung and acted whilst Carmen Giannattasio, as Tonio’s unfaithful wife in Pagliacci, contributes some physical allure as well as Italianate vocal squilla and convincing acting. These qualities she shares with Elena Zilio’s brilliant portrayal as Turiddu’s despairing but powerless mother. The latter two, like the orchestra under Pappano and Royal Opera House chorus, deserve a better framework for their skills than this production and staging.

The accompanying leaflet contains an essay by Helen Greenwald entitled "Coupling Mascagni and Leoncavallo". It's given in English, French and German along with synopses of the two operas, cast lists and photographs. Regrettably, there are no printed chapter listings and timings, a frustrating omission particularly as they are listed on the disc itself as part of a general programme introduction. Similarly frustrating is the variable continuity and completeness of the English subtitles which are omitted entirely for the Latin text of the Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana, albeit that is not unusual.

Robert J Farr

Appendix
 
Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci and verismo.
 
Cavalleria Rusticana was based on a play by Varga and was part of a genre that became known as verismo, or real life, as distinct from being based on historical facts or myths, as much of Verdi’s early operatic work had been. He and others were constantly constrained as to choice of subject for much of their careers by the censors. It is often suggested that Mascagni single-handedly founded the verismo school with this work. The term is used to describe operas that moved away from myth or historical stories to draw on the rawness of contemporary real life instead. While myth was the basis of Wagner’s operas, those of the Italian belcantoists, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, along with Verdi, being the most prominent, were restricted by political censorship and composers were forced to eschew anything vaguely contemporary or religiously controversial. Verdi tried to break the pattern with La Traviata (1853) based on a contemporary story set in France but was thwarted at the premiere when, despite his wishes, the opera was set in an earlier period destroying much of its impact. By the period of the composition of Cavalleria Rusticana such restrictions, in the unified state of Italy, were gone and composers had a free hand with only public decency constraining them.

Mascagni hit the big time with this one act opera Cavalleria Rusticana by winning the first prize in a competition sponsored by the publisher Sonzogno, at a sensational debut at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi on 17 May 1890. At age twenty-six it was not his first opera, nor would it be his last. What is true is to say is that were it not for Cavalleria Rusticana the rest of his operatic compositions would be unknown. As it is only L’Amico Fritz (1891) of which there is a recording featuring Pavarotti and Mirella Freni, Isabeau (1910) and Lodoletta (1917) are performed, and then only very occasionally.

Pietro Mascagni adapted Giovanni Verga’s play Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) for a competition held by the music publisher Edoardo Sonzogno. His opera, a verismo masterpiece, won the competition and became a tremendous success on its premiere on 17 May 1890. Cavalleria rusticana influenced many operas that followed, including Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892). The two operas were staged together in 1892 and have become known as "the operatic twins" since, particularly when Pagliacci was presented in a one-act form.

Unusually for the time, Mascagni composed Cavalleria rusticana in set numbers – arias, duets and ensembles – rather than making it through-composed. He turns this structure to great advantage, using this formalism to detail the lives of his doomed characters within their repressive, repressed community, and to turn the screw as the opera hurtles towards its tragic end. Turiddu’s brindisi Viva il vino spumeggiante, Santuzza’s melancholic Voi lo sapete, o mama and the Easter Hymn are among the musical highlights. The story of Cavalleria Rusticana is set in a Sicilian square in front of a church and concerns adultery, jealousy and murder. It is made up of nine numbers that trace the mounting tension and conflict between the peasant girl Santuzza and Turiddu. Turiddu is the man who made her pregnant and who deserted her for Lola, a former inamorata, who married Alfio the local carter whilst he was away.

Italian composer and librettist Ruggero Leoncavallo is best known today for his one act verismo masterpiece Pagliacci for which he also wrote the libretto. Born in Naples he began his studies there in 1866. In the late 1870s he wrote both music and libretto for his first opera Chatterton - first performed in 1896. Around that time he moved to Egypt, but on the outbreak of the Anglo-Egyptian War in 1882 he moved to Marseilles and then to Paris, where he worked as a pianist in café-concerts. He found some success with the symphonic poem La Nuit de mai and was also commissioned by Ricordi to write a planned trilogy Crepusculum - of which only the first part, I Medici, was completed. After the success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana he was inspired to write Pagliacci, which was a triumph on its 1892 premiere and led to stagings of Chatterton and I Medici. His La bohème in 1897 was overshadowed by the success of Puccini’s version the previous year. His last major success was Zazà in 1900. Around this time he was increasingly popular in Germany, leading to 1904’s Der Roland von Berlin. He was an early supporter of recording, and that year composed the song Mattinata for Enrico Caruso and the G&T company. Caruso also made the aria Vesti la giubba famous and something of a signature tune for himself. Towards the end of his life Leoncavallo turned increasingly towards operetta, starting with La Jeunesse de Figaro (1906, New York). His later operas included Goffredo Mameli (1916) and the incomplete Edipo.


 

 




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