Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Southern Italian Odyssey of Betrayal and Murder

Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana / Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci
Metropolitan Opera 
April 14, 2015

The two faces of the star of the show.
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera
The Met’s new production of Cavalleria Rusticana is a solemn and downtrodden outing. Purportedly set over Easter weekend in Sicily where the oranges are supposed to hang redolent on the air alongside the square (Aranci olezzano sui verdi margini) and the sunshine of springtime in southern Italy ought to burn brightly, Sir David McVicar’s new setting is instead dark and brooding. All we get is a stark “piazza” and minimalist details that do little to set the scene no matter how effective they are for transitions between piazza, church, tavern, home, and back again. While I’m not necessarily against essential productions, this one definitely missed the mark. I could not get over the darkness that made the whole thing feel more like a northern European Protestant winter rather than a Sicilian Catholic spring. 

Sicilian Easter on McVicar's set in all its starkness.
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera
To me the Sicilian land, with its almost violently bright sunlight and generous nature, is an important character in Cavalleria. A place of strong contrasts, torrid and sensual, stirring irresistible passions that lead to tragic impulsive acts. McVicar’s sets, with the only touch of color being a basket of tomatoes in the market scene, if anything stirred a sad gloominess, but certainly nothing remotely sensual or impulsive, which is kind of the point of this opera. On the other hand, the costumes were very Sicilian. And the opening passages of the opera, both its in medias res serenade and initial choruses, are sung in Sicilian dialect which is very musical. But it was a bit strange to hear foreign voices intone these southern accents. It does not quite compute in the mouth of singers who sounded more comfortable singing German. But oh well. Opera is an international art form, as it almost always has been.

Lola amidst her people.
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
I’m usually not a fan of verismo opera, especially when in the hands of Puccini when he is at his sappiest in La Boheme. But there is something irresistibly evocative and viscerally suggestive, almost seductive and sexy to me about Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. There is something to be said about bringing verismo back to its original literary roots in Italy. As a movement it is often placed in a league with the gritty urban French “naturalism” of Emile Zola. But the Italian verismo of Giovanni Verga, the author of the play and short story on which the opera is based, is driven by a different set of social and geographic concerns that are determined largely by its roots in Sicilian peasant life, rather than the underbelly of Parisian life. Verga gives us a different kind of striving and struggling and suffering in the figures of his fishermen, peasants and other subaltern individuals and it translates to the opera stage far more effectively. 

Santuzza implores Turiddu.
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera 
The orchestra led by maestro Fabio Luisi plowed through the stunning score with intensity and beauty. For Mascagni’s is such beautiful music. And so unconventional in many ways with its opening in medias res and its two choral introductory passages alternating with musical interludes. The singing was also mostly phenomenal. Marcelo Alvarez as the cold-blooded mamma’s boy, Turiddu, was a revelation. While I’ve seen him before, this was the first time he really impressed me. Alvarez burst onto the scene with a full round tenor sound that we don’t get nearly enough at the Met. He was manly and masculine and full chested as he made easy work of his long legato lines. 

I was particularly moved by his “Tu qui, Santuzza,” about halfway through, when he lets his spurned lover know that he is not a slave to her insane jealousy because he intends to go back to his previous lover – nevermind the fact that she is now rather inconveniently married to the biggest, baddest bass baritone in town, who also just happens to like to crack his whip any chance he gets (Schiocca la frusta). The “Tu qui, Santuzza” scene evolves beautifully from a standoffish put down (Bada, Santuzza, schiavo non sono) to a passionate duet in which the audience witnesses the depth of the love bond these characters actually do share (No, no, Turiddu, rimani ancora). Even if the text of what they’re saying to each other dramatizes their unfriendly separation and Turiddu’s insistent leavetaking, Mascagni has scored it in such a way that underscores their contrapuntal affection. It is the stuff that heart-wrenching drama is made of. And Alvarez and Westbroek brought it forcefully to life. I was tingling all over.  

Turiddu and Santuzza have a moment.
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera
Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Santuzza was beautifully acted and powerfully sung. I find Santuzza’s plight heartbreaking. Poor Santuzza and all that she is forced to endure at the whims of this cowardly mammone (mamma’s boy). I mean, come on, Turiddu is supposed to marry her but betrays her, lies to her face and goes to church (!) with his lover Lola right under Santuzza’s nose. Also, he is not even enough of a man to stand behind his actions and runs whining to his mamma Lucia all the time. What an immature jerk! He really does seem to get what he deserves when Lola’s irascible husband Alfio finally kills him. 

"A te, la mala Pasqua!"
Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
My one big qualm with Westbroek’s performance is the way in which she chose to embody the “mala Pasqua” curse she levels at her offender at the end of their big showdown scene. When a southern Italian, especially a Sicilian woman, intones a mala Pasqua against you, they say it like they mean it. We’re talking Medea-style, chthonic earth cult Mediterranean thumos coming at you loud and clear, with the visceral fury of a wounded wild animal. When Westbroek got to it she sang it with a weary worn out desperation that half seemed like she didn’t really mean it, especially when accompanied by facial expressions and body language that made it seem like she immediately reconsidered what she said, as if she couldn’t believe what she just uttered, rather than unleashing on him the fury of a dishonored southern Italian woman along with all the force of the land that bore and bred her. When a woman like Santuzza issues a mala Pasqua curse, she definitely does not regret it and rides that boiling wave of anger for a long while before calming down. 

Santuzza in the Sicilian borgo.
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera
Both Mascagni and Verga give us a pessimistic vision of the lower classes in this Sicilian borgo who are oppressed by culture though they should be uplifted by nature that is springing back to life all around them. But there is no Christ-like resurrection here. No rebirth. Only the struggle of two equally ill-fated individuals, one perhaps more morally just than the other, to live out their passions. There will be no resurrection of the flesh for compar Turiddu this Easter. 

Model of McVicar's early 20th Century Pagliacci set.
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera
McVicar’s new Pagliacci on the other hand is an entirely different beast. He sets it in a town square that is bustling with realistic detail including stunning depth of field with an authentic looking southern Italian bar in the farthest reaches of the stage that bristles with small town life – beautiful details that made me nostalgic for small town Italian life. So charming. So gritty. The modernizing touches with respect to the Met’s prior cartoonish production of Pagliacci were just a handful: a truck (instead of a horse-drawn caravan), some telephone poles and electric wires and the visual vocabulary of the vaudeville stage replacing that of the commedia dell’arte. Otherwise this production, while pleasant and visually engaging, felt pretty safe, traditional and not terribly innovative. The contrast with McVicar’s approach to Cavalleria was nevertheless striking. From so stark and lifeless to so bubbling with life, what does he really accomplish dividing the split bill so squarely? 

Canio, the clown is not all laughs.
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera
Marcelo Alvarez continued to impress as Canio, a more noble and moving character than that useless and cruel Turiddu. He embodied the painful intertwining between theatrical fiction and harsh reality with a profound, heart-piercing desperation that moved me to tears, particularly in the signature aria Vesti la giubbaHis female counterpart, the cheating wife Nedda, was played by soprano Patricia Racette, who positively surprised me with an extremely energetic stage presence and a vocal performance to match it, particularly effective in her duet with her lover Silvio and in the vaudeville performance. Georgian bass-baritone George Gagnidze was also on double duty from Cavalleria (where he played a lumbering lug of an Alfio), here more incisive as the troupe’s hunchback Tonio, also in love with Nedda.

Nedda struts her stuff.
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera
While musically and dramatically I prefer Cavalleria over Pagliacci, I did find McVicar’s specific direction choices for the Leoncavallo companion piece more enjoyable and true to the original narrative core when compared to his take on Mascagni. The meta-theatrical themes of Pagliacci came vividly to life in this production’s cheerful Italian village. I cannot help but wonder, though, if they injected some Sicilian sunshine into Cavalleria, what a better show it would have been.

– Lui & Lei

Commedia dell'arte goes Vaudeville.
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera

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