|6 July, 2016||Filled under Opinions, Reviews||
Tonio –David Kempster
Canio – Peter Auty
Nedda – Meeta Raval
Silvio – Gyula Nagy
Beppe – Trystan Llŷr Griffiths
Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Carlo Rizzi – Conductor
Elijah Moshinsky – Director
Sarah Crisp – Revival Director
Michel Yeargan – Set Designer
Howard Harrison – Lighting Designer
Paul Woodfield – Tour Lighting
I have been attending opera productions for well over thirty years and have never had the opportunity to see a production of this most famous and widely loved double bill. My Father had very few complete operas in his collection. As with for a lot of Irish working class men of his generation it was the singers that were the main attraction. But he did have complete recordings of both of these endearing works and every Easter, without fail, Cavalleria rusticana would blare out through the house. It was, I think , my first operatic love.
The opening prelude immediately sucks you in, from its opening bars. It is telling that Mascagni refers to it as a prelude rather than an overture, though it does contain three phrase that crop up as we experience the unfolding story. The prelude is interrupted by the off-stage voice of Turiddu (sung by Peter Auty, stepping in to replace an ailing Gwyn Hughes Jones) singing the praises of his love: O Lola, bianca come fior di spino (O Lola, fair as a smiling flower).
The curtain rises to show us a village square the women in the square sing their praises to the Virgin Mary: La Virgine serena allietasi del Salvator (The Holy Mother mild, in ecstasy caresses the child) whilst the men sing the praises of work and the beauty of women.
Santuzza (the role sung so magnificently by Camilla Roberts) approaches Mamma Lucia, Turiddu’s mother, who is coming out of her wine shop. Santuzza asks after Turiddu, Lucia tells her that he has gone to fetch wine in another village, but Santuzza has heard that he was in their village the night before. Alfio a teamster comes into the village on his carrier cracking his whip and sing of the life of a teamster. He approaches Lucia and asks about Turiddu. The mother repeats that he is away to get the wine, but Alfio tells her that he has not left the village.
Santuzza stays with Lucia as the villagers sing the Easter Hymn as they make their way into church. Lucia tells the mother that Turiddu has seduced Lola, who is Alfio’s wife: Voi lo sapete (Now you shall know) Santuzza tells her. For me this is one of the most heartbreaking arias I have ever heard. I have heard quite a number of recordings of Cavalleria Rusticana and various sopranos who have sung the role of Santuzza, some over-dramatise the aria few, that I know of have sung it so convincingly as Roberts. It was a real revelation, that brought tears to my eyes. And even if that was her only aria in the opera, I would still say that she was the real star of the night.
Lucia goes into the church leaving Santuzza on the steps. Turiddu appears. Santuzza reproaches him for pretending to have gone away, when instead he has sneakily been visiting Lola. Turiddu denies that he loves Lola and he becomes indignant at her for her jealousy. She tells him that she heard that he had not left the village from Alfio, who had seen him the previous night. Turiddu goes into a rage, accusing her of wanting to see him killed: Così ricambi l’amor che ti porto? Vuoi che m’uccida? (Thus you return the love I gave you? You wish him to kill me?). Santuzza tells him that although he betrayed her she still loves him: Battimi, insultami, t’amo e perdono (Beat me, insult me, I still love and forgive you).
Their argument is interrupted by the voice (off-stage) of Lola. She is singing: Fior di giaggiolo (Bright flower, so glowing) . The song is carefree yet cruel. She sings of how she stole Turiddu from Santuzza, and mocks her, as she makes her way into church. Lola is only on stage for a very short time yet those few moments are charged with tension. Turiddu goes to follow her into church. Santuzza pleads with him not to go, but he pushers her to the ground and follows Lola into Mass. Within seconds Alfio appears looking for Lola.. He asks at what point the service has reached Santuzza replies: È tardi omai, Ma per voi, Lola è andata con Turiddu! (It is now late; But for you—Lola has just gone with Turiddu!) she tells him that while he was out working hard lola had turned his home into a brothel (Lola v’adorna il tetto in malo modo!) then seems to regret it: Infame io son che vi parlai così! (‘Twas wicked in me to have spoken thus!). Alfio assures her of her innocence but swear vengeance: vendetta avrò pria che tramonti il dì
(and blood I’ll have before the close of day!). They both leave the stage.
The Intermezzo is, perhaps the most well know pieces in this opera, if not in the opera canon. For non opera buffs many will know it from Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull, where it was used to great effect suggesting the beauty, rather than brutality, of boxing.
No matter how many times of have heard it I still love it and many times it appears as something fresh, something that I have only just experienced. Under the baton of the great Carlo Rizzi the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera brought back that feeling.
The people begin to come out of the church. The men sing of returning home to their wives, expecting the wine to flow: A casa, a casa, amici, ove ci aspettano (Now homeward, companions) Turiddu comes out with Lola, who he persuades to have a drink with him. He sings one of the splendid arias: Viva il vino spumeggiante (Hurrah for the foaming wine) and the men accompany him.
Alfio enter and Turiddu offers him some wine which he refuses: Grazie, ma il vostro vino io non l’accetto, diverrebbe veleno entro il mio petto! (Thanks, sir! Your cup of wine is not accepted!In me it would be poison, my heart’s blood chilling!). The women sense trouble and call on lola to leave with them. Having bitten Alfio Turiddu threatens him, saying vi saprò in core il ferro mio piantar! (literally “I’ll know in core iron my planting !”, which I think is so poetical) Alfio accepts a fight and says that he will meet him beyond the orchard. Alfio leaves as Lucia enter. Turiddu realises that the wine has gone to his head and that is in no shape to fight Alfio. To his mother he says: Mamma, quel vino è generoso, e certo oggi troppi bicchier ne ho tracannato … vado fuori all’aperto….(Mother,… that old wine … is very heady,… and surely This day … many a glass … have I been drinking.I’ll go out for a moment).
The mother waits to hear news of the duel the news come that Turiddu is dead and the curtain falls immediately and the orchestra stop as if timed to coincide with the curtain touching the ground, This is such an effective end as if to say that there is nothing else. I wonder if Mascagni considered and rejected ending on a chorus. I do feel that the end of the opera has the effect of jolting the audience with its abruptness.
The singing and acting was outstanding and never overdone. Cavalleria rusticana makes demands on opera producers, they have to find a way to make this popular opera effective without being hackneyed. The set was a traditional one so the demands made by the production lay on the shoulders of the cast and the orchestra. WNO have shown themselves more than capable of rising to the challenge. Some people think that the orchestra is there simply to accompany the singers and maybe provide a bit of emotional emphasis. That may well be the case for some early operas but here the orchestra are very much a part of the cast. Nowhere has this shown itself to be the case than in opera Verismo (realistic). Cavalleria rusticana, believed to be based on a true story, is considered the first Verismo opera. It was a great success at the time even though audiences were shocked by the raw portrayal of brutality.
Of course, since that time the attitudes and values of audiences have changed and with an opera such as Cavalleria rusticana it takes a great deal of work to ensure that the production isn’t just put on because of its entertainment value it must be treated as art; it has to tell us something about ourselves and humanity, it has to shock us or move us and it is a great credit to the director, Elijah Moshinsky and the rest of those involved in the production, that their work is not done simply to get bums on seats, but is treated as something, well, sacred. Whilst I have had the great pleasure of seeing and reviewing WNO productions over the past few years, and experiencing Alban Berg’s Lulu, which I consider to be the best opera production I have seen in my 30 years, I can only imagine that operas such as Cavalleria rusticana carry with them equally demanding effort if they are to be treated seriously.
Pagliacci is also opera Verismo and also set during a religious celebration, Feast of the Assumption. Also it is the only opera of either composer that is known and was an instant success at its premier.
The clown Tonio addresses the crowd (Us, the audience): Si può?… Si può?… Signore! Signori!… Scusatemi se da sol me presento. Io sono il Prologo: (May I? May I?..Ladies and gentlemen … Excuse if I present myself alone .I am the Prologue). Tonio tell the crowd not to be alarmed by the agonies to be portrayed. Here Leoncavallo nails his colours to the mast, letting us know that this is opera Verismo by having Tonio explain to the crowd that the drama that they are to see is a slice of life. He explains the the maxim of the author of the play is that the artist is human, that he writes for humanity and that the drama was inspired by real events. The author that he refers to is in reality Leoncavallo himself. I guess that we might see Tonio’s prologue as a Mission Statement. David Kempster delivers the prologue almost off-handedly and you get the sense that Tonio is mocking the pretensions of the author.
The curtain rises for act one where we find the excited villagers welcoming the troupe. Canio, the leader of the troupe, beating a drum to get their attention: Mi accordan di parlar? (May I be allowed to speak?) He tells them that the show will begin at eleven o’clock and explains that the drama is about how Pagliaccio took his revenge on the clown Taddio.
Tonio steps forward to help Canio’s wife, Nedda get drown from the cart but Canio pushes him away and helps his wife down as the crowd jeer Tonio: Prendi questo, bel galante! (Take that for your gallantry). Tonio mutters his revenge.
A peasant invite Canio to go for a drink he asks Tonio if he is coming along, Tonio refuses say that he is brushing down the donkeys and that he will be along later. The peasant jokingly says to Canio to watch out, that Tonio wants to be alone with Nedda. Canio warns the peasant not to make jokes like that. He says that the stage is not like real life, that Pagliacci may catch his wife with a lover and then deliver a comic sermon, and the audience will laugh and applaud. But Nedda Ma se Nedda sul serio sorprendessi… (But if I were to catch Nedda in the act . . .) Nedda responds with indignation.
Pipers appear accompanying the procession and the villagers go off towards the church. Canio reminds them of the time of the show as the chorus sing a most beautiful and uplifting piece, Andiam! Andiam! (Off we go! Off we go!). Canio leaves the stage to change out of his costume.
Nedda is left alone with her thoughts. Qual fiamma avea nel guardo! (What fire was in his eyes!) but she is drawn to her surroundings: O che bel sole di mezz’agosto! (oh what a beautiful mid-August sun!). This is Nedda’s only aria, and Meeta Raval carries it off well. It would be interesting to hear her in a more demanding role and it will be interesting to see her approach to Cio-Cio San in Madam Butterfly.
Nedda is interrupted by the arrival of Tonio, who says that he is charmed by her singing. Nedda chides him, he asks her not to. So ben che difforme, contorto son io . . . (I know That I am deformed) is one of the highlights and David Kempster delivers the aria with such tenderness and pathos, without overdoing it. It was a delight to hear him. Nedda continues to laugh at him. And his attempts to kiss her are cruelly rebuffed.
In the next scene the villager Silvio and Nedda’s secret lover, climbs over the wall reassuring hr that there was no risk from canio as he was still at the inn. He pleads with her to run away with him that night: (Ah! Nedda! fuggiam!) Nedda is tempted but believes fate to be against them. Tonio appears and catches the two lovers. He rushes off to find Canio.
Next we see Canio and Tonio . Canio hears Nedda’s promise to Silvio: A stanotte e per sempre tua sarò. ( Until tonight, and ‘ll be yours forever!). She realises that Canio is there and calls out to Silvio. As Canio runs after the lover Tonio appears. Nedda berates him, but he feels triumphant. Canio returns demanding the name of Nedda’s lover, which she refuses. He lunges at her with a knife but it is the arrival of Beppo, who knocks the weapon from Canio’s hand, that saves her.Beppo calms Canio and leads him away. Alone Canio comes to the front of the stage for one of the most famous and greatest moments of Italian opera: Recitar! Mentre presso dal delirio . . . Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina (Acting! While you’re out of your mind . . . Put on your tunic and whiten your face – usually translated as “on with the motley”). Auty sings with such pathos, it was very moving to hear him. Vesti la giubba was first recorded by Enrico Caruso in 1904 and was the first record to sell over a million copies (it is said that there were not that many gramophone players in existence) and it is believed that it was he who introduced the sob at the end of the aria, which signals the end of the first act.
The Intermezzo between the two acts is less well known than that of Cavalleria rusticana but it is no less delightful and bridges the gap, between the two acts, very well. In fact it works as a brief respite to the harshness of the opera.
Act two opens in the theatre with the audience taking their seats for the performance Tonio is on the stage prompting the audience to hurry and find their places. Nedda comes on dressed as Columbine. Silvio is in the audience and whispers to her that he will wait for her after the show. Off stage Beppo, who is playing Harlequin, sings to her O Colombina, il tenero fido Arlecchin è a te vicin! (O Columbine, tender faithful Harlequin is close at hand). Tonio dressed as the servant Taddio enters and comically praises Columbine’s beauty. Columbine shows her contempt for him in a very funny duet. Columbine goes to signal Harlequin. Taddio ignores him and continues to praise Columbine with sincerity So che sei pura e casta al pardi neve! (I know that you are pure and chaste as the snow!). Harlequin grabs him by the ear forcing him to stand up, he exits the stage. The lover sit down for a meal, they exchange comic pleasantries ( Columbine: love loves the fragrance of wine and cooking; Harlequin: My greedy Columbine!). Tadio enters telling them that Pagliaccio is in a fury,and looking for weapons. Harlequin has given Columbine a sleeping philter and tell her to pour it into Pagliaccio’s (Canio) cup. Canio enters just as Columbine is saying to Harlequin A stanotte e per sempre tua sarò. ( Until tonight, and ‘ll be yours forever!) it is Canio who realises that these are the same words nedda had called out to her lover. Back in the role of Pagliaccio, he accuses her of having a lover, which she denies, telling him that she has been sitting taddio, who, off stage, assuring him that Nedda is pure .
Pagliacco pleads with the audience for his right to to behave as any other man and demands that Columbine give him the name of her lover. Nedda, carrying on with the play, cries out Paggliacco! Paggliacco! But Canio responds No! Pagliaccio non son; se il viso è pallido, è di vergogna, e smania di vendetta! (No! I am not Pagliaccio ; if the face is pale, it is with shame and lust for revenge!) He continues, telling her of his love for her and how he believed in her, but she was simple badness (Ma il vizio alberga sol ne l’alma tua negletta ). The audience are unaware that what is going on, on stage, is no longer a play. Nedda and Canio rage at each other as the audience call out bravo! Nedda tries to return to the play, the crowd laugh but are silenced by Canio’s behavior: Ah! tu mi sfidi! E ancor non l’hai capita ch’io non ti cedo?… Il nome, o la tua vita! Il nome! (You defy me Don’t you understand that I am not letting you go? His name or your life! His name!). The audience are beginning to realise that what they are witnessing may not be a play: Fanno davvero? (Is this for real?). Silvio jumps onto the stage a knife in his hand. Cannio kills Nedda, who has already spoken Silvio’s name. Cannio turns and stabs Silvio. Several people jump on the stage and disarm him. The final words (half spoken) are perhaps the most famous last words in opera: La commedia è finita!.
Thus brought to an end a truly astonishing performance. I do have recordings of both operas and the DVD of Zeffirelli’s film of both operas. But it cannot be emphasised enough that the full impact from opera is to be found in the opera house itself.
Cav & Pag was WNO’s first ever production on 15th April 1946. Tonights performance is a revival of the 50th WNOanniversaryy, March 5th 1996 and it is a complete triumph for the company and atestamentt to the dedication that WNO has for opera. Unfortunately WNO are not visiting Liverpool and it may be a while before another opportunity arises to see this classic double bill.
Many people that I know who are familiar with both operas have a preference for Cavalleria rusticana and whilst it may have all the best tunes I firmly believe that Leoncavallo’s opera is, by far, superior.
As a work of art it raises many questions that are stillpertinentt to us today, particularly about whether art should try to emulate real life in doing so it question thelegitimacyy of Verismo itself, it is as though the composer (Leoncavallo wrote the libretto as well as composing the music) had doubts about the form of realism and was testing it out in order to find an answer. I cannot think of any popular opera that can engage an audience on such level. That is not to take anything away from Mascagni’s masterpiece.