Cavalleria rusticana and I Pagliacci

By, respectively, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Conductor, Renato Palumbo
Stage Director, Leslie Halla Grayson

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on Mar. 14, 2009

Mascagni's Cavalleria is a burst of affectivity, a tight but feverish melodrama that sweeps quickly through the spectrum of love, coquetry, betrayal, jealousy, revenge, and redemption. Mascagni's music -- lush, dramatic, sweet, and forceful -- is ideal for this protean story.

It's Easter. The curtain rises in media res, but we soon learn that Turridu had once been affianced to Lola, who, while her betrothed was in the army, grew impatient and instead married Alfio, the local carter. After returning from his tour of duty, Turridu discovers Lola's betrayal, whereupon he seduces Santuzza. There is the strong implication that she's now pregnant with his baby, as a result of which the Church has excommunicated her. Since that time, however, Turridu and Lola have resumed their liaison, without Alfio's knowledge and with only a suspicion on the part of Santuzza. Nevertheless, on the strength of that suspicion, Santuzza demands answers from Turridu in front of the church, to which accusation he reacts by accusing her of wanting Alfio to kill him. Lola passes by, teasing Santuzza about being barred from entering the building, while Turridu coldly rejects Santuzza's pleas to return to her. Scorned, Santuzza makes Alfio aware of the goings-on; not surprisingly, he swears vengeance against Turridu and challenges him to a duel. In what seems like a personal epiphany, a moment of sudden moral lucidity, Turridu asks his mother to take Santuzza in should he die. At the end, the duel proceeds off stage and a woman screams that Turridu is dead.

Lyric Opera's production capitalizes on the allegory of the Easter myth through the fine voices who sang the principal roles. Guang Yang painted Santuzza's desperation with a compelling vocal richness, especially in the lower part of her mezzo tessitura. The sense of desperation she created heightened my disdain for Lola's contemptuousness and for Turridu's conceit. Yang's voice held my attention throughout the performance in large part because of the unique roundness, warmth, and creaminess of her tone.

Singing the role of Turridu, Carlo Ventre played off Yang's anguish to forge a character of unenlightened self-interest. But there was also a penumbra of self-skepticism in Ventre's manner just bright enough to lay a foundation for Turridu's redemption at the end. His indifference to the pain he was causing Santuzza was all the more audacious because of the hopelessness Yang bored into their exchanges.

Katherine Lerner used Lola's short time on stage to establish the contrast between Turridu's two lovers, by illuminating the sincerity that Yang infused into Santuzza's suffering. Lerner's Lola was suitably snobbish, with a believable sneer that extended from face to attitude to voice.

As Alfio, Lola's husband and the town carter, Mark Delavan cut the stereotypical figure of a respectable Sicilian man in the 19th century. Delavan's booming baritone voice, which was uniformly powerful throughout its range, supported his character's bombast. And that self-congratulatory swagger across the stage after he'd killed Turridu punctuated Alfio's hollow arrogance and his obliviousness to the irony that he'd just redeemed the very man he intended to disgrace.

The convergence of these four sharp musical portrayals -- Yang's torment, Ventre's narcissism, Lerner's hauteur, and Delavan's tetchiness -- formed the cross at the apex of this Easter allegory.

Under the baton of Renato Palumbo, the orchestra was arguably as much a character as was any singer on stage. Their diapasons were lean and light, but no less a match for the tragedy it was partly their responsibility to recount. At no time did the lightness of the playing have greater effect than in the intermezzo; the orchestra's delicacy created an extraordinary serenity that allowed the natural musical arc to appear before us as quietly as a rainbow.

Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci is essentially the story of Shakespeare's Othello. It is similar to Cavalleria inasmuch as jealousy brings about violence, but different in that its trajectory doesn't lead to redemption. This tale is uglier and more brutal.

Set in a Calabrian village, this opera culminates in a commedia dell'arte performance shattered by a crime passionnel. Canio rips off his mask as the cuckolded clown and rebukes his wife, Nedda, for her affair with Silvio, a villager. With shouts of "Bravo!", the audience, believing this turn of events to be part of the play, encourages the troupe of traveling players to carry on. The terrified Nedda tries to steer them back to the comedy, but, in a ballooning rage, Canio repeatedly demands the name of her lover. Her refusal to answer angers Canio to the point that Silvio rushes on stage to save Nedda from the berserk clown. But his heroic effort proves tragically futile, as Canio stabs Nedda and then her lover.

This opera pivots on Canio's volcanic temper. Lyric made a superb choice in dramatic tenor Vladimir Galouzine, who was true to his own words that singing this role is "like cutting your veins open". He balanced his performance masterfully on a razor's edge between control and frenzy and between love and hate, falling off that edge only when the character so demanded. Unfortunately, there was one moment in the opera when Galouzine erred; it was at the most vulnerable (and most famous) passage in the score, the climax of the clown's festival of self-pity. On the line "Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto", Galouzine rushed and pulled himself uncomfortably ahead of the orchestra. That brief loss of synchrony ruined what should have been a musically electrifying few seconds in one of the most dramatic operas in the repertoire.

Soprano Ana María Martínez sang the role of Nedda, Canio's unhappy wife. Though strong in the upper register, her voice weakened as she came down the scale; moreover, her vibrato was a bit too fast for my taste. Nevertheless, Martínez smoothly conveyed Nedda's two diametrical emotions of fear toward the explosive Canio and of love for the gentle Silvio. In fact, she and Christopher Feigum, who played her beloved, persuaded us all of their devotion to each other, eliminating all doubt after their tender interpretation of the duet "E allor perché".

Nowadays, these two operas are performed as a pair for no compulsory reason other than tradition. In fact, each of them has been paired with any of several other short operas, comedies included, such as Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. My companion at this performance, however, remarked that seeing Cavalleria and Pagliacci together contrasted the two couples such that the mutuality of the love between Silvio and Nedda stood out against the asymmetry of the relationship between Turridu and Santuzza. And right she was. But even so, that distinction was as much a product of the excellent characterizations as it was a result of the pairing.