Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, April 17, 2015

Cavalleria rusticana all’italiana

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On April 25, 2015, the Metropolitan will present the most indissoluble of all operatic double bills, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, “Live in HD.” First performed in Rome in 1890, Mascagni’s one-act melodrama had its Met premiere the very next year when it was paired incongruously with Gluck’s neo-classical Orfeo. In 1893-94, the company coupled Cavalleria with Gounod’s Philémon et Baucis, later that same year with one act of Mascagni’s own L’Amico Fritz and with two acts of La Traviata. Toward the end of that season, Cavalleria was wed with its near contemporary, Pagliacci (1892), and has held fast to that eminently fitting partner ever since.

A decade later, in 1902, 39th Street and Broadway was the first stop on Mascagni’s projected three-month U.S. tour. His company was to play Cavalleria rusticana with another of his one-act operas, Zanetto, and his three-act Iris. Things got off to a rocky start in New York and went from bad to worse. One influential contemporary critic, Henry Krehbiel, called Mascagni’s visit the “most sensational fiasco ever made by an artist of great distinction in the United States.” The composer had contracted to prepare and conduct “not more than eight operas or concerts a week,” including the three performed at the Met and his full-length Guglielmo Ratcliff. This last never saw American footlights. When he moved on to Boston, he was arrested for breach of contract. Krehbiel continued, “It was foolishly reckless in the composer to think that with such material as he had raked together in his native land and recruited here he could produce four of his operas within a week of his arrival.” Mascagni countersued for damages. Krehbiel concluded, “The scandal grew until it threatened to become a subject of international diplomacy, but in the end compromises were made and the composer departed to his own country in bodily if not spiritual peace.” Needless to say, Mascagni never returned.

At close to 700 repetitions, Cavalleria rusticana stands tenth in the frequency of Met performances after La Bohème, Aïda, Carmen, La Traviata, Tosca, Rigoletto, Madama Butterfly, Faust, and Pagliacci. Since its company premiere, more than eighty singers have poured out the woes of Santuzza, spurned by the two-timing Turiddu. The earthy Sicilian protagonist has been portrayed at the Met by sopranos and mezzo-sopranos of many, many nationalities, but surprisingly, only rarely by Italian artists. We have chosen clips that feature two Italian sopranos, Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and Carla Gavazzi who, like numerous others of their compatriots, centered their careers in the vital opera scene of their homeland during the inter-war and post-war periods. The two tenors you will hear sang at the Met, Mario Ortica briefly in 1955-56, Beniamino Gigli, as the primary successor to Caruso, from 1920 to 1932, then for a few appearances in 1939.

Arangi-Lombardi, a principal dramatic soprano at La Scala in the late 1920s, when the theatre was under the directorship of Arturo Toscanini, headed the casts of early complete recordings of Cavalleria, Aïda, and La Gioconda. Unlike many interpreters of Santuzza, who ignore Hamlet’s advice and tear “a passion to tatters,” she invests her feelings with the weight and density of her tone and the unaffected line of her phrasing, the better to render the character’s dignity as well as her humiliation.

In this 1957 broadcast, the Santuzza-Turiddu duet emerges with immediacy, despite the artifice of lip-synching to pre-recorded music, the deplorable practice of Italian television in its studio productions of opera. Mario Ortica delivers an incisive, particularly nasty version of Sicilian machismo. The Santuzza is Carla Gavazzi who, to our knowledge, never appeared outside Europe. In the early 1950s, she became known in the U.S. through recordings of Pagliacci, Adriana Lecouvreur, and most memorably, La Fanciulla del West.Gavazzi’s timbre, pungent rather than plush, gives compelling vibrancy to the conversational speech patterns of verismo. We discover through this video that her acting is as richly inflected as her singing.

Here is Gigli, the preeminent Italian tenor of his time, in the “Addio alla madre.” The contrite Turiddu, filled with forebodings of his death in the upcoming duel with Alfio, the husband he wronged, begs his mother to watch over Santuzza. This 1927 Vitaphone short, a very early sound film, captures Gigli’s rudimentary stagecraft along with his ineffably sweet timbre and unerring tonal control over a wide dynamic range. When he bows to his virtual public at the end, it is easy to imagine the roar of approval.  

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