Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci
Crimes of Passion

Concert Opera Boston sponsored Chorus Pro Musica’s concert opera performance of the beloved verismo duo Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci on Sunday, June 3, 2007. The cast included favorite performers from previous Concert Opera Boston/Chorus pro Musica productions. Michael Hayes, both Turiddu and Canio, was seen in Samson et Dalila in June 2005. Jason Stearns, Macbeth in 2001 and Germont in La Traviata in 2003, performed the role of Tonio. David Murrary returned in the role of Alfio, which he performed with Concert Opera Boston in May 1997. They were joined by Layna Chianakas as Santuzza, Maryann Mootos as Nedda and Joshua Benaim as Silvio. Maestro Jeffrey Rink led the stellar cast, Chorus pro Musica and orchestra. Jordan Hall was nearly sold out, and the audience was deeply appreciative and wildly enthusiastic. For the second year, Concert Opera Boston sponsored a pre-concert lecture with Steven Ledbetter.

The critics praised the performances:

“Opera in concert can sometimes be a stilted affair, with works of great theatrical dynamism reduced to two dimensions by a stolid lineup of singers planted shoulder-to-shoulder in front of an orchestra. Not so with Chorus pro Musica, which ended its season on Sunday in Jordan Hall with a classic double serving of operatic naturalism: "Cavalleria Rusticana" by Mascagni and "I Pagliacci" by Leoncavallo. Far from the concert-opera norm, these were engagingly hot-blooded performances, and…music director Jeffrey Rink and his collected forces succeeded in bringing the elemental passion and fevered expressivity of this music clearly to the fore. It helped that a stage extension added a few extra feet in front of the orchestra, giving singers room to act out the bursts of emotion and violence that push forward these stories of love and murderous jealousy in the 19th-century Italian countryside. Among the cast, Michael Hayes did double duty, singing Turiddu in "Cavalleria" and Canio in "Pagliacci" and conveying the unstable, smoldering emotion near the core of each character. His portrayal had a virile strength…In "Cavalleria," mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas was an audience favorite as Santuzza, singing with a strong, cutting voice and projecting real pathos into the character of the betrayed peasant girl. David Murray was a persuasive Alfio,…and Jacque Wilson a sweet-sounding…Lola. "Pagliacci" featured Jason Stearns as a strong Tonio, Maryann Mootos as a capable Nedda, Joshua Benaim as an ardent Silvio, and Gregg Jacobson as a solid Beppe. Rink…drew mostly taut and flexible playing from the orchestra, and the chorus took well to its collective role as peasants and villagers, sounding robust and earthy.” - Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe, June 6, 2007

“Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci — the traditional double bill of “verismo” masterpieces, late-19th-century operatic breakthroughs into an earthy, anti-heroic “realism” that focus on dramatic confrontation and feverish theatricality, their plots boiling over with betrayals, revenge, and murder — might not seem an ideal vehicle for concert opera. Yet these chestnuts have not been roasted around these parts in years, and the semi-staged performance Jeffrey Rink led with Chorus pro Musica, a stellar orchestra, and a fine cast of (mostly) Boston newcomers proved that even without scenery or traditional costumes, these operas can pack a wallop. In concert, the vivid and colorful orchestration is front and center, and both operas are wonderful vehicles for chorus…All the performers threw themselves into their parts, vocal soloists and chorus alike…Rink’s conducting swept one along on torrents of climaxes. He shaped Mascagni’s soaring tunes eloquently and seemed to delight in the elegance of Leoncavallo’s orchestra, with its evocative music for flute (Julia Skolnik) and harp (Martha Moor capturing both folk-like and celestial aspects). The chorus sang with conviction, as both devout and carousing villagers and as the audience for Leoncavallo’s touring players, not only singing but also applauding the “actors” and gasping at the murder. The NEC Children’s Chorus was remarkably professional. Verismo operas need big voices, and Rink cast these operas with several outstanding ones. The suavest and most lyrically refined belonged to … baritone Joshua Benaim, as Silvio in Pagliacci …In Cavalleria , Greek-American soprano Layna Chianakas was a firm-voiced and impassioned Santuzza, the betrayed heroine...As Alfio, the betrayed husband in Cavalleria , baritone David Murray…gave yet another vivid characterization... Tenor Michael Hayes had the best credentials…Hayes has an imposing voice and presence…He was better as a crazed Canio than as the caddish Turiddu…The singer who walked away with the show was baritone Jason Stearns…His acting was sly, subtle, yet dramatically potent... And he had the best voice in the cast. I can’t wait to hear — and see — him again.” - Lloyd Schwartz, Boston Phoenix, June 19, 2007

Cavalleria Rusticana, I Pagliacci, and the Verismo Style

As the nineteenth century neared its end, Italian opera was in the midst of a crisis. What many considered to be Italian opera’s peak—the so-called bel canto period of the 1820s to the 1840s—had ended with the retirement of Rossini, the death of Bellini, and the confinement of Donizetti to an insane asylum. With the notable exception of Verdi, relatively few Italian composers had operas produced since the peak of the bel canto period, with only Ponchielli’s La gioconda and Boito’s Mefistofele entering the standard repertoire. Other Italian composers, most notably Catalani and the Brazilian-born Gomes, had brief successes, but neither added significantly to the repertoire and neither was enough of an innovator to create anything particularly new and different. During the first half of the nineteenth century, nearly all operas performed in Italy were by Italian composers, but as the flow of new Italian opera declined, the vacuum was increasingly filled by operas from Germany (Wagner’s operas were heard in Italy beginning in 1871, when Lohengrin was performed at La Scala—in Italian) and France (chiefly operas of Meyerbeer, Bizet, Gounod, and Massenet). The characteristics of German and French opera began to influence Italian opera composers as well, to the dismay of many Italian operagoers (even Verdi was sometimes accused of “Wagnerism”). By 1890, with Verdi nearing seventy, the question arose in operatic circles of whether someone would come along who could revitalize Italian opera with a new operatic style and let Italy recover its preeminence in the operatic world. People were looking for a hero figure to counter the effects of a weak economy, a government wracked by scandal, and political upheavals, and given the importance of opera to the Italian public of the time, a new opera composer could fill the bill.

The answer came in 1890, not so much in the form of a person, but in that of a new style: verismo. The seeds of this style had been planted a few decades earlier, and its growth was aided by the changing political, social, and literary climate of the time. As democratic republics replaced monarchies in Europe, and with the rise of the middle class, authors (such as the French writers de Maupassant and Zola and the Italian author and playwright Verga, the source of the libretto of Cavalleria Rusticana) and composers began to turn to stories about the common people set in the contemporary period. Verdi had hinted at this trend with La traviata, and Bizet, with Carmen, had created a work with many of the hallmarks of this new style. But its most important appearance in Italy came with Cavalleria Rusticana, the first opera by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945). Mascagni had been a pupil of Amilcare Ponchielli, composer of La Gioconda, and Giacomo Puccini was his classmate (and even, for a time, roommate). He entered Cavalleria Rusticana in a competition held by the music publisher Sonzogno (which needed operas with which to compete with the publishing houses Ricordi and Lucca), and after winning the prize enjoyed a triumphant premiere at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on May 17, 1890. The premiere featured Gemma Bellincioni as Santuzza and Roberto Stagno as Turiddu, under the baton of Leopoldo Mugnone; reportedly, performers and composer received sixty curtain calls. The work quickly spread throughout Italy and, within a year, the rest of Europe and the Americas; its American premiere was at the Grand Opera House, Philadelphia, on September 9, 1891. At first, overenthusiastic audiences proclaimed Mascagni as the successor to Verdi. It turned out, however, that none of Mascagni’s subsequent operas had nearly the impact of his first, and only L’amico Fritz, Iris, Lodoletta, and Il piccolo Marat are occasionally revived today. The influence of Cavalleria Rusticana, however, was felt for the next several decades, through operas by Puccini, Giordano, Cilea, and, Leoncavallo.

Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) had written two unperformed operas before he achieved lasting fame with I pagliacci. Leoncavallo claimed that he was inspired by a real-life incident involving jealousy and murder reported by his father, a judge in the town of Montalto in the Calabria region, but he also may have been inspired by a story by Catulle Mendès recounted in his 1887 Femme du Tabarin. The success of Cavalleria no doubt propelled Leoncavallo’s opera as well. I Pagliacci was first seen at the Teatro del Verme in Milan on May 21, 1892, with Adelina Stehle as Nedda, Fiorello Giraud as Canio, Victor Maurel as Tonio, and Mario Ancona as Silvio, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Within a year it had been performed in Vienna, Berlin, London, New York (at the Grand Opera House, also known as Pike’s Opera House, on Broadway at 23rd Street, on June 15, 1893), Buenos Aires, and Moscow. As with Mascagni, Leoncavallo’s subsequent operas did not enjoy nearly the success of I Pagliacci, and only his version of La bohème (1897, mostly eclipsed by Puccini’s setting of the same story) and Zaza (1900) retain even a small hold in the repertoire today.

Verismo operas tend to be short, usually in two parts separated by an intermezzo. They usually have simple stories and characters with whom the audience can relate. Mascagni’s and Leoncavallo’s peasants are not the idealized pastorals of an earlier day. They talk about the events of daily life: work, jealously, religion, wine, adultery. They deal with basic emotions that are conveyed in a direct manner by the music and the vocal approach. The ornamentation and vocal graces of the bel canto period are replaced by something more blunt. In the words of Eduard Hanslick, writing about Cavalleria, “The dramatic action ... is conducted according to concepts that are absolutely modern. Its music springs and spreads solely from the situation, and not according to the old pattern of construction on the aria.” There are practical reasons for the success of the verismo as well: the stories do not require elaborate productions, making the operas relatively inexpensive to mount, and the vocal demands are not as high as the bel canto operas required, making them comparatively easy to cast. True verismo operas are relatively few, but the term has been used to cover most of the Italian operas written in the years following Cavalleria and I Pagliacci on the basis of their musical style, even though many do not involve stories about common people. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the verismo movement is not in its naturalistic plots or the characteristic melodic forms, but rather in the singing style that developed from necessity out of the heightened emotional character of these operas and the increasing size of the orchestra, a style marked by greater use of the chest register (and less emphasis on disguising register breaks), a more strenuous-sounding approach instead of purity of vocal production, blatant emotionality replacing the coloratura of the mad scene, the tone being declaimed rather than spun out on the breath. The style was exemplified by Enrico Caruso who, through the medium of the phonograph, spread the verismo vocal style throughout the world. As singers of the old school, such as Adelina Patti, and teachers trained during the bel canto period retired or died, the verismo style of singing became the dominant style, even for revivals of bel canto operas. Caruso, whose career began as verismo became dominant, has been called the first modern tenor; certainly, his singing style has served as the model for tenors ever since.

Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci have been paired in performance for so long that they have been dubbed “operatic twins.” But they did not start out life together, and it was not until relatively recently that they became an almost inevitable pairing. They were first joined in performance at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome in 1893. At its Metropolitan Opera premiere, Cavalleria was preceded by act 1 of Verdi’s La traviata, and I Pagliacci was initially preceded by Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. The first Metropolitan Opera performance to join Cavalleria with I Pagliacci came on December 22, 1893, I Pagliacci being performed first; the first time they were staged there in the now standard order was on January 4, 1894. For many years, however, each opera was just as likely to be paired with either another short opera, an operatic act, or a ballet. Cavalleria sometimes followed Gounod’s Philemon et Baucis, or Orfeo ed Euridice (up to the aria “Che faro senza Euridice”), or acts 1 and 2 of Carmen, or even the complete Lucia di Lammermoor of Donizetti. At one performance in 1905 Cavalleria, minus the prelude, was followed by act 4 of Lagioconda and act 3 of Il barbiere di Siviglia. Other operas with which it shared a double bill were Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel. I Pagliacci shared the stage with Massenet’s La Navarraise, as well as Lucia and Orfeo. During the 1930s, both operas appeared in triple bills, sometimes with a ballet by Tchaikovsky and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi or with Hansel and Gretel and a ballet called The Bat, based on the music of Johann Strauss, Jr. In the 1938-39 season, each opera was mounted following Richard Strauss’s Salome, and in 1941-42 I Pagliacci preceded Menotti’s Ilo e Zeus. In recent years, some opera houses have experimented with staging both operas as if they were one work, with characters from each opera appearing as extras in the other, ignoring the fact that the two operas take place in different parts of Italy and on different days—Cavalleria takes place in Sicily at Easter time and I Pagliacci takes place in Calabria on the Feast of the Assumption, in August.

Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci are among the most frequently recorded operas in the repertoire, and they were among the first operas whose reputations were spread with the help of newly emerging technology. Recordings of the arias “O Lola ch’hai di latti la cammisa” (the so-called “Siciliana”), “Voi lo sapete, o mamma,” and the intermezzo from Cavalleria and “Si puo? ... Un nido di memoria” (the Prologue), “Vesti la giubba,” “Stridono lassù,” and “No, Pagliaccio non son” from I Pagliacci date back to the earliest days of days of the phonograph industry. Both works received virtually complete recordings as early as 1907 (I Pagliacci, “under the personal supervision of the composer,” according to contemporary catalogs) and 1916 (Cavalleria), both from performing forces of La Scala, Milan. Two recordings might be singled out as particularly noteworthy: Enrico Caruso’s 1907 disc of “Recitar! mentre preso dal delirio ... Vesti la giubba,” which has never been out of the catalog in its hundred-year history, and a complete recording of Cavalleria Rusticana conducted by the composer to celebrate the work’s fiftieth anniversary in 1940, which is preceded by a brief speech by Mascagni. Film footage—silent, unfortunately—exists of Caruso singing the role of Canio on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in 1918, for use in one of Caruso’s two movies. And the first experimental radio broadcast of a complete opera was the double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, with Riccardo Martin as Turridu, Emmy Destinn as Santuzza, and Enrico Caruso as Canio, on January 13, 1910; it was carried by a combination of a 500-watt wireless transmitter and telephone lines to a few hundred listeners listening via earphones in Newark, New Jersey, and on board a ship moored in New York harbor. The experiment was unsuccessful, as the microphones of the day lacked the necessary sensitivity to pick up the singers’ voices from the footlights, and only the off-stage “Siciliana, sung directly into a microphone, could be heard clearly; radio broadcasts of operas from the Metropolitan did not resume until 1931. But it seems appropriate that the new technology embraced these two operas that launched a new phase in operatic history.

--Michael Sims

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Chorus pro Musica event description


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