Sicilian Blood and Thunder: Cavalleria Rusticana Returns Home

ItalyItaly Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana: in concert form, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia, James Conlon (conductor), Ciro Visco (chorus master), Rome, 4.4.2012 (JB)

Santuzza: Luciana D’Intino
Turiddu: Aleksandrs Antonenko
Lucia: Elena Zilio
Alfio: Roberto Frontali
Lola: Marta Vulpi

There are two melodramas which have almost literally burned their way into the hearts of opera lovers, the one a tale of a black sun descending over Spanish culture and the other a black sun disrupting and confirming Sicilian culture. Both operas are most frequently presented with a mezzo soprano lead (darker voices emphasise the shadowy side of the horror) but both have tempted sopranos into the challenging roles. Bizet’s Carmen (1875) is only separated by fifteen years from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890). Both are based on literary jewels; Bizet’s on a novella of Prosper Mérimée, Mascagni’s on a supremely well crafted short story of Giovanni Verga. (There is a remarkable translation into English by D H Lawrence which gets close to capturing the amazing nuances of Verga.) Bizet died within weeks of the premiere of Carmen; in some editions of his biography, it is said that his heart was broken at the flop of the opening night. Cavalleria Rusticana was a roaring success at its opening at Rome’s Teatro Costanza (now Teatro dell’Opera) and Mascagni, who lived until 1945, went on to write half a dozen other operas with an eye to equalling the success of Cav (as it became affectionately known). But he never did; Iris and L’ Amico Fritz make periodic appearances in (mostly) Italian houses, but nothing to compare to the secure place which Cav held. And still does.

At one time, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci were joined at the hiplike Siamese twins: you couldn’t see one without the other. The twins were known as Cav and Pag. Mercifully, that has passed. And with Cav at a running time of one hour, twenty minutes, that is quite enough blood and thunder for today’s audiences. Salome is only ten minutes longer. And who would want anything tacked onto Strauss’s horror opera? Santa Cecilia were right to dedicate a full evening to Mascagni’s masterpiece.

You may fault Mascagni for lack of originality but his craftsmanship is beyond reproach. Like most other Italian composers, he is quintessentially a man of the theatre. And one who had learned much from Verdi. Right down to that favourite Verdi trick of the effectiveness of the off-stage tenor or pushing the mezzo soprano as high as she can go to ensure the right dramatic thrust of the melodrama. Or interrupting a heart-breaking, seductive melody on the wind with forte tremolo strings. Or out of tune tubular bells cutting across a ceremonial march on the brass.

Excellent work has been done by the casting department at Santa Cecilia, too. James Conlon can always be relied upon to deliver the goods. And for the most part he did. I confess that I was expecting more. Some of the performance was a little four-square. He seems not to have understood that in this opera –uniquely- you have to sweat the music out of the players. Most of the sweat seemed to be coming out of Maestro Conlon himself. Failure to get the essential involvement of the players with this music results in a failure of delivery –a partial failure, I should perhaps add. For there truly were some memorable moments. Even the orchestra’s often unreliable harpist was in tune and in time in both on-stage and off-stage harps. The strings roared and glowed like the heat of Sicilian sun at all the right times, which the composer so thoughtfully provides for.

The chorus in Cav is important. They are The People. And this is a People’s opera. Folk who don’t go to the opera much will claim it as their own. I had the uncomfortable experience of some aged folks close to me in the audience joining in bits they knew. Under their breath, I’d better add. But some of them had loud breath, too! The Chorus master, Ciro Visco, is to be congratulated for obtaining all the right vocal effects Mascagni’s score calls for, from peasant calls to sonorous, organ-like liturgical passages.

Luciana D’Intino is probably the most distinguished of today’s Italian dramatic mezzo sopranos. Her Santuzza is thrilling. This is a big voice with rich contralto overtones and in the highest register, the contralto colours do not desert her. And they colour the drama in a way that would not be possible with any ordinary mezzo.

Aleksandrs Antonenko has a slight tremor in his voice, which can easily tip over into a wail. In other circumstances these would be vocal faults, but here they are distinct assets: Turiddu finds himself frequently in a wailing position in this painful story. So another bit of admirable casting.

Elena Zilio has always been a consummate artist over a long career. Nor did she disappoint here as Mamma Lucia. But why does she now call herself a contralto? She is no such thing. Especially if you set her against Luciana D’Intino, who is clearly in possession of contralto notes whichever register she claims to belong to. Ms Zilio, as always, was totally involved in her role.

Roberto Frontali’s Alfio has an appropriate rough edge to his portrayal of this unthinking peasant. His opening coachman’s song was a joy, tinged with just the right ominous touch which foreshadows the horror to come. Like the others, he had thoroughly understood what the character was all about. Marta Vulpi, who normally has a place in the Accademia’s Chorus, gave a dignified performance as Alfio’s disillusioned wife, Lola.

Jack Buckley