Giovanni Verga’s Musicianship

ItalyItaly Florence.  Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana.   Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.  Chorus Master, Lorenzo Fratini.  Conductor, Giampaolo Bisanti.  Stage Director, Mario Pontiggia.  Sets and Costumes, Francesco Zito.  Lighting, Gianni Paolo Mirenda.  Opera di Firenze 23.10.2014 (JB)

Mamma Lucia,  Cristina Melis;
Turiddu, her son, Sergio Escobar;
Santuzza, in love with Turiddu,
Luciana D’Intino;   The Carter Alfio,
Lucio Gallo;  Lola, his wife,  Martina Belli.

Giovanni Verga’s short story, Cavalleria rusticana, is a miniature jewel in Italian literature: miniature because the whole drama is over in five pages, though the intensity matches the brevity.  Like many masters of the short story, Verga gives us the embryo in the opening sentence.  The rest is an amplification of the warning lights flashing in that sentence.  D H Lawrence would have given his right arm to be able to write like this.  In fact he did rather a good translation of the tale.  But I’m unable to put my hands on it.  So please make do with my own effort to make sense of Verga’s genius:

Turiddu Macca, il figlio della gnà Nunzia, come tornò da fare il soldato ogni domencia si pavoneggiava in piazza coll’ uniforme da bersagliere e il berretto rosso, che sembrava quello della buona ventura, quando mette su banco colla gabbia dei canarini.  [Turiddu Macca, son of Signora Nunzia, would return from military service every Sunday, proudly strutting through the piazza in dazzling uniform, crowned with a bright red  cap and that air of good fortune you hear from canaries singing in their cages.]

Turiddu is Sicilian for Salvatore.  Notice that his mother has social standing in this village: she is a Signora.  Note too the hints about Turiddu’s light-headedness.

Such was the overwhelming success of the  (1880) story  that Verga was persuaded to turn it into  stage-play (1884).  The words of the play were adopted unchanged by Pietro Mascagni’s librettists for his opera (1890 at Teatro Costanzi, now Teatro dell’Opera, Rome).

Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say –though not a great exaggeration- that all that Pietro Mascagni had to do was to reach down into the depths of these words where he would find the opera already composed.  That is not to belittle Mascagni’s efforts.  It takes more talent than D H Lawrence  (or me!) to do this.  And in a single night, Mascagni inaugurated a whole new chapter in operatic history: verismo was born!  I remain convinced that the success was due to the composer’s insights into Verga’s musicality through language.

Turiddu may be light-headed but he is also passionate: the passion is misguided to be sure, but in Verga and Mascagni’s telling of the tale it is all the more powerful exactly for that ambiguity.  I would have thought that Sergio Escobar had these vocal qualities but on tonight’s showing, this was not to be.  His off-stage arietta during the Prelude was extremely promising: all Turiddu’s charm and simplicity came through.  But as the emotion builds up, Mr Escobar weakens.

I had better say that the performance was in the just-opened, two-thousand seat Opera di Firenze, which is not kind to underpowered voices.  But I cannot go along with Escobar fans who were protesting that the young conductor, Giampaolo Bisanti, was overwhelming his singers.  Maestro Bisanti was doing precisely what Mascagni directs –making the orchestra sing.  The inadequacies were all Mr Escobar’s.  The sweetness and charm which is heard in the vocal line came through.  Pietro Mascagni’s preferred Turiddu was Beniamino Gigli with whom he recorded the opera in 1940.  But yes, I am that the first to admit that any comparison with Gigli would be grossly unfair.

However, back in the sixties, I remember hearing Carlo Bergonzi’s impressive Turiddu.  Although he was a wooden actor he sang with his usual grace, which amazingly was so effective in the Big Duet in that it brought out a unique vocal colour of pain.  That might have surprised  Mascagni as much as it did me.

Then on the morning following the Cavalleria  under review, gazing at the early paintings of Filippino Lippi in the Uffizi Galleries (next door to the over-visited Botticelli room) the younger Lippi unwittingly handed me the perfect definition of grace.  It has to do with an understated effortlessness.  That is not a tautology.  In the same artist’s later works, some effort is visible.  And the grace is thus compromised.

Luciana D’Intino was in similar difficulties as Santuzza, overwhelmed by the calls for volcanic power in the role.  This was also a singer who I remember with a bigger voice than I was hearing on this night.  Again, Maestro Bisanti was not compromising; rightly so, in my view: that would have been two sins for the price of one.  In the Big Duet, neither soprano nor tenor was able to ride over the tumultuous orchestra –just what the composer ordered.

My cheering of Giampaolo Bisanti’s respect for Mascagni reminds me of Richard Strauss’s calling out to the conductor at the dress rehearsal of ElektraLouder!  For heaven’s sake, louder!  I can still hear Frau Schumann-Heink.   Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who had one of the biggest voices of all time and created the role of Klytemnestra, recorded in her memoirs, We were all screaming and rushing round the stage like madwomen.  I will never sing in a Strauss opera again.  And she never did.

Lucio Gallo gave the best vocal performance of the evening as the Carter, Alfio –vocally secure and blissfully unaware of the going-ons.  A pity that the production couldn’t rise to the donkey and cart for his delightful entrance number.  Cash problems, the designer later told me.  Without these attachments, singing about cracking the whip doesn’t really make sense.

Martina Belli as Alfio’s wife, Lola and Cristina Melis as Mamma Lucia, were both adequate, though a little more warmth in Mamma Lucia’s voice –especially when she turns from Santuzza’s problems to her son’s –would not have come amiss.

Francesco Zito (set and costumes) is himself Sicilian.  In fact, in April 2015 there will be another, different staging of this opera with his set and costumes at the Teatro Massimo in his native Palermo.  Unsurprisingly, all that meets the eye is steeped in the deepest Verga traditions.  The colours are restrained with just the right touch of theatricalicity in the costumes of the principal characters.  It’s Sunday after all and Zito gives you the feeling that they have turned out in their Sunday best.  The Easter Day procession was wonderfully dignified without any sense of being stagey.  Some small children in the chorus was a nice touch of Verga realism.

Mario Pontiggia’s production was earthy and unfussy in the best Verga traditions and firmly grounded in the Zito set and costumes.

The chorus are “the people” in this opera and though they are for the most part, shadows of the main drama, the very shadows illuminate those passions.  Chorus Master, Lorenzo Fratini, had prepared them well.  They were at their most impressive in the unaccompanied off-stage singing of the Mass –hushed and perfectly in tune; a little less so in the introduction to Alfio’s entrance number.

I had heard that the Maggio Danza  was undergoing a period of crisis.  That was certainly confirmed in the twenty-something minutes of dance to movements of Haydn symphonies, which served as a curtain-raiser to Cavalleria rusticana.  Of that brief experience, the less said, the better.

Jack Buckley

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