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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria rusticana, Opera in one act (1890)
Libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci
Santuzza – Melody Moore (Soprano)
Turiddu – Brian Jagde (Tenor)
Lucia – Elisabetta Fiorillo (Contralto)
Alfio – Lester Lynch (Baritone)
Lola – Roxana Constantinescu (Mezzo-soprano)
Donna I – Anna Rad-Markowska (Soprano)
Donna II – Manja Raschka (Contralto)
MDR Leipzig Radio Choir
Dresdner Philharmonie/Marek Janowski
rec. live, March 2019, Kulturpalast Dresden, Germany
Reviewed as lossless download
PENTATONE PTC5186772 SACD [66.06]

Cavalleria rusticana is Mascagni’s most celebrated work and possibly one of the best known operas worldwide. The plot is simple but tragic and bloody. In a village in Sicily, the young innkeeper Turiddu fell in love with a flirtatious beautiful girl, Lola, before he was called to war. Returning from the army, he finds her as the wife of the coachman Alfio and seeks comfort in the arms of the passionately loving Santuzza. But Lola knows how to attract him back. Turiddu pushes Santuzza away, who then, driven by jealousy, tells Alfio about the adulterous relationship of his wife with Turiddu. Alfio takes revenge on the man who stole his honour by killing him in a knife fight. All this happens on Easter Sunday during the service, in front of the church.

Mascagni’s music is impossibly dramatic though not immediately at the beginning. Emotions only start running high with Santuzza’s beautiful melodious Voi lo sapete, o mamma, reaching its climax in the duet between Alfio and Santuzza when she tells him of Lola’s infidelity and he swears revenge. At this point we know the whole story will end in tragedy and tears but right at this moment Mascagni gives us the serenity and beauty of what is arguably one of the best loved moments in opera – the intermezzo sinfonico, performed to an empty stage. It is a powerful contrast; the calm before the storm which actually and perhaps surprisingly serves to increase the tension to almost unbearable heights. With Cavalleria rusticana Mascagni created an extraordinarily effective piece of emotional drama, presenting ordinary people in credible situations; telling a story that is both simple and realistic enough to resemble life thus making it easy for the members of the public to identify with the characters.

The present Pentatone recording of Cavalleria rusticana is outstanding. Conducted by Polish-German maestro Marek Janowski, recognised as a great master of German music and now artistic director and chief conductor of the Dresden Philharmonie, this is to my mind one of the best renditions of Mascagni’s opera that I have ever heard. I have previously heard various recordings of this work: the EMI recording with JosÚ Carreras and the great Montserrat CaballÚ (from I believe 1990) where she in particular is outstanding as Santuzza; also from EMI the 1953 recording with Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano or my personal favourite the 1976 Decca recording with Julia Varady and Luciano Pavoritti. Varady excels in the role, as almost at anything she sang. And here she sounds as glorious as she always did on stage where I had the privilege of hearing and seeing her in different roles at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. I would place this Pentatone version up there with the ones mentioned above. American soprano, Melody Moore, sings Santuzza. She has a rich, velvety involving tone with impressive dramatic expression, excellent technique and a powerful voice, which she seems to easily project above the orchestra. All of Santuzza’s anguish, despair, jealousy as well as her vindictive vein come vigorously across. Moore is very moving in the beautiful Voi lo sapete, o mamma, displaying an exceptional arioso quality in her voice, soaring easily not just in the high notes but in the expression of her pain. Her duet with Turiddu, sung by American tenor Brian Jagde, is excruciatingly sad, contrasting with his indifference and irritation, as she doesn’t leave him alone. Jagde is in great form here; his captivating tenor sounds manly and very clear. His voice has also a terrific dramatic quality and he manages exceptionally well to express fake sincerity (when he denies to Santuzza that he is in love with Lola) and outrage at Santuzza’s doubts and almost obsessive jealousy. Lola, performed by Romanian mezzo soprano Roxana Constantinescu, is also excellent. Her tone is clear and seductive, demonstrating the character’s sensual appeal. Her appearance when Santuzza and Turiddu are arguing is an effective contrast of her carelessness with the serious drama unfolding between the pair. American baritone Lester Lynch, better known as a dramatic Verdi baritone, does a particularly credible job as Alfio, the betrayed husband of adulterous Lola. His duet with Santuzza when she tells him the truth about Lola’s and Turiddu’s relationship is remarkable. His voice exuding drama, fury and desire for revenge convincingly throughout. For me the weakest link in this performance is Italian contralto Elisabetta Fiorillo as Lucia. Perhaps at sixty-three her voice is sadly beginning to struggle and although she is mostly good and effective as the mother, I personally found the noticeable wobble in her vibrato a little distracting.

The MDR Leipzig Radio Choir is extraordinary throughout. The voices soar with power and beauty above the orchestra and there are moments where they get right under the skin, sending shivers down one’s spine. Marek Janowski leads the Dresdner Philharmonie in a superb account of Mascagni’s music, highlighting the drama and sustaining the voices with clarity, harmonising the power of the orchestra with that of the voices, allowing them to float above the instruments rather than overwhelm them. I should probably add at this point that the dramatic power of the piece was at its most impressive when I heard the digital streaming through my Plantronics headphones. The effect via the Bluetooth I have set up on my Hi-Fi system is also very powerful but to a slightly less degree of impact.

This Pentatone recording of Cavalleria rusticana is currently available as DSD (Direct Stream Digital), which is how I heard it, and will later be physically available as an SACD. The recorded sound is marvellous in its clarity and energy. The booklet is rather stylish, appropriately with a stunning cover photo of Mount Etna during an eruption, spilling bright red lava against the Sicilian sky. It clearly symbolises the emotional eruption of the drama and effectively marks the geographical location where it happens. The booklet notes, written by Steffen Georgi, make interesting reading and appear in English and German. There are no artists’ biographies but the booklet contains the full libretto in the original Italian with the English and German translations side by side.

I enjoyed this recording of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana immensely. Pentatone made the wise decision, to my mind, of presenting this one act opera on its own rather than with the one that usually accompanies it on stage productions, meaning with Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. In this way, I believe it allows the listener to better concentrate on Mascagni’s work and therefore savour it more in all its detail and glory. I think this recording also compares favourably with previous recordings known to me. This, in my opinion, is no mean feat and reflects exceptionally well on conductor Marek Janowski who manages a fresh take on a piece that is (almost!) too often staged and recorded.

Margarida Mota-Bull
Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at Flowingprose.com



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