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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria rusticana, opera in one act (1890)
Libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti & Guido Menasci
Santuzza (a peasant girl, fiancée of Turiddu) – Melody Moore (soprano)
Turiddu (young peasant, son of Mamma Lucia, fiancée of Santuzza) – Brian Jagde (tenor)
Mamma Lucia (mother of Turiddu) – Elisabetta Fiorillo (mezzo-soprano)
Alfio (a carter, Lola’s husband) – Lester Lynch (baritone)
Lola (Alfio’s wife) – Roxana Constantinescu (mezzo-soprano)
Donna I – Anna Rad-Markowska (soprano)
Donna II – Manja Raschka (contralto)
MDR Rundfunkchor,
Dresdner Philharmonie / Marek Janowski
rec. live, March 2019, Kulturpalast, Dresden, Germany
Contains full Italian texts with English translations
PENTATONE PTC5186772 SACD [66:06]

On Pentatone this new SACD of Pietro Mascagni’s masterpiece Cavalleria rusticana is the first in a projected series of recordings from Marek Janowski and the Dresdner Philharmonie. A past principal conductor of the Dresdner Philharmonie, Janowski has now returned to the orchestra sixteen years after holding the post to serve as its artistic director and chief conductor from the 2019/20 season.

Janowski is known primarily as a champion of the Austro/German Classical/Romantic tradition. The last concert I saw him conduct was Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in 2016 at the Frauenkirche, Dresden. Noticeably discerning, Janowski with his eye for detail demonstrated his concern for precision and predilection for orchestral balance. A renowned Wagnerian, in 2016 and 2017 Janowski conducted the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. This live recording of Cavalleria rusticana has been produced from two concert performances held at the Kulturpalast, Dresden.

In May 1890 local music teacher and town brass band master Mascagni shot from virtual obscurity to become an overnight success as his single act opera Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic chivalry) was premièred to great acclaim at Teatro Costanzi, Rome. Somewhat reluctantly the twenty-six-year-old Tuscany-born composer had submitted his score into the 1888 competition for new one act operas from fledgling composers. From over seventy entries the jury chose Cavalleria rusticana as the winner. As a competition prize the top three operas were all promised a Rome staging, sponsored by Milanese music publisher Edoardo Sonzogno.

Mascagni’s friend, librettist Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, in collaboration with fellow writer Guido Menasci, chose and wrote the composer the libretto to Cavalleria rusticana. The partnership had based its libretto predominantly on the renowned 1884 stage play that Sicilian realist writer Giovanni Verga had later adapted from his 1880 novella Cavalleria rusticana. From the opera the Intermezzo sinfonico has proved to be an enduringly popular orchestral work. With its haunting melody of introspection and melancholy the Intermezzo has proved popular for use on radio, television and film including Raging Bull (1980) and The Godfather, part III (1990).
Cavalleria rusticana is widely adjudged as the first opera to exploit verismo the rather short-lived Italian literary movement that was in vogue towards the end of the nineteenth century. Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana were the movement’s principal proponents and authors of a verismo manifesto. Rooted in the Italian post-Romantic opera tradition verismo sought to portray the ‘realism’ and ‘truth’ of gritty everyday life scenes, warts and all, as exemplified by Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s
I Pagliacci (Clowns). At its finest verismo achieved an unfailing integration of the distinctive musical and dramatic components on which it centred.

Certainly, fast-moving the opera is set in a Sicilian village on Easter Sunday in the late nineteenth century. Pregnant, jilted and excommunicated by the church, Santuzza and flirty adulteress Lola are both in love with unfaithful young soldier Turiddu. This classic love triangle, entrenched in passion, jealousy and hate with a betrayal, ends in tragedy when Lola’s husband Alfio kills Turiddu in a duel. Since 1893 Cavalleria rusticana has been commonly staged with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci as a double-bill widely known as Cav and Pag. Both favourite operas of mine; the last time I attended a performance of Cav and Pag was in 2015 was when reporting from a revival of David Pountney’s staging at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.

Melody Moore takes the part of the disgraced village girl Santuzza in her aria Voi lo sapete, O mamma (O mother, you know). In strong, full voice the American lirico spinto convincingly demonstrates Santuzza’s distress as she relates her story steeped in misfortune to Lucia. Turiddu with three arias is sung by Brian Jagde and I especially enjoyed Mamma, quel vino è generoso (Mother, that wine is strong). As his duel with Alfio is about to take place Turiddu, woozy from the wine, requests his mother to care for Santuzza if he does not return. Displaying an ample, warm tone the American tenor competently communicates Turiddu’s emotional state ranging from imploring to erratic passion. In the earlier Brindisi (Drinking song) - Viva il vino spumeggiante (Praise the sparkling wine) where Turiddu in celebratory mood invites his friends to a party, Jagde’s provides a cheery, lusty quality.

Lester Lynch, as Alfio reveals his dramatic ability in his scene with chorus Il cavallo scalpita (The horses’ hooves thunder). With ample vocal strength the American baritone is rich and expressive, yet I want additional focus. Alfio’s character would ideally benefit from expressing in his voice a sense of enragement and swagger. Lola’s offstage song Fior di giaggiolo (O flower of the Iris) is given by Romanian mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu with an appealing, steady voice from the top to bottom of her range. As innkeeper Mamma Lucia, mezzo-soprano Elisabetta Fiorillo makes as much as she can of the role.

Marek Janowski sets the tone for the performance by taking a rather kid-gloves approach with his Dresdner Philharmonie. I see the shortcomings as lacking verismo’s irresistible earthy quality and intense passion. From the podium Janowski communicates only a modest level of stimulus ensuring that the orchestra and vocal soloists simply cannot generate the elevated level of veristic drama. Consequently, the performance seems too buttoned up and never ignites. Leipzig based, the MDR Rundfunkchor makes its mark with a beautiful Regina coeli laetare (Queen of heaven, rejoice) and together with Santuzza and Lucia produces an ardent Easter Hymn Inneggiamo, il Signor non è morto (Let us rejoice. That our Lord is not dead).

First recorded in 1907 it is not surprising such a landmark opera as Cavalleria rusticana has, over the decades, attracted many of the greatest singers to the recording studio. Now firmly established in the catalogue and enduringly admired for having something special are recordings from Callas, Tebaldi, Scotto, Várady, Björling, del Monaco, di Stefano, Domingo, Pavarotti et al. At the end of this review I have listed my particular favourites.

On the Pentatone label the album is recorded live at the extensively refurbished Kulturpalast, Dresden
which I can attest has a really excellent acoustic. Auditioned on my standard unit this hybrid SACD
produces an acceptable sound. Nonetheless, to my ears it sounds as if the singers are placed amongst the body of the orchestra rather than standing apart at front of the stage. The Kulturpalast audience can hardly be heard and the applause at the conclusion has not been retained. In the booklet there is an informative essay in English despite its Italian title Santo diavolone! which includes a synopsis all written by dramaturge and musicologist Steffen Georgi. I am delighted to report that full sung Italian texts with English translations are provided in the booklet too.

Under Marek Janowski this new Dresden release is well performed but adopts a rather safe path. In the face of such fierce competition from a number of illustrious recordings (see below), all performed with electrifying results, this Janowski account does not pack sufficient emotional punch.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Margarida Mota-Bull
Recommended Recordings
Giuseppe Sinopoli with Agnes Baltsa and Plácido Domingo, recorded 1989 in London on Deutsche Grammophon
Herbert von Karajan with Fiorenza Cossotto, and Carlo Bergonzi, recorded 1965 in Milan on Deutsche Grammophon
Silvio Varviso with Elena Souliotis, Mario del Monaco and Tito Gobbi, recorded 1966 in Rome on Decca
Gianandrea Gavazzeni with Júlia Várady, Luciano Pavarotti and Piero Cappuccilli, recorded 1976 in London on Decca
Tullio Serafin with Maria Callas, Rolando Panerai and Giuseppe di Stefano, recorded 1953 in Milan on EMI/Warner
James Levine with Renata Scotto and Plácido Domingo, recorded 1978 in London on RCA Red Seal
Alberto Erede with Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Björling, recorded: 1957 in Florence on Decca
Riccardo Muti with José Carreras and Montserrat Caballé, recorded 1979 at Watford Town Hall, EMI/Warner

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