Two short operas were destined to be important in history and become almost obligatory partners: Pietro Mascagni´s "Cavalleria Rusticana" ("Rustic Gentlemanliness"), 1890, and Ruggero Leoncavallo´s "I Pagliacci" ("The Clowns"), 1892. Together they founded the new style in Italian opera: "verismo". It is the musical counterpart of the literary realism of Zola and it deals with realistic subjects from everyday life, contrasting with the mythological or historical matters that had dominated up to then (although Bizet´s "Carmen" was a precursor).
Both reacted against the closed numbers and adopted highly dramatic heightened recitatives and continuous action. The music is impulsive and melodic nevertheless, with emotions with which we can identify. Local color is imperative: a small Sicilian village (Mascagni), Montanto di Calabria (Leoncavallo), similarly small and folkish. And the plots are also based on triangles and quadrangles of jealousy and death.
Giovanni Verga was an important Sicilian author (1840-1922), a true verista. "Cavalleria Rusticana" is one of the short stories in "Vita dei campi", 1880; but he later transformed into a play (1884), and he revised it after Mascagni´s opera in 1896. The libretto is the work of Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci. Leoncavallo wrote his own libretto based on a true story; his father had been the judge of Giovanni D´Alessandro, who had killed his wife because she was having an affair.
In "I Pagliacci" there´s something special: the theatre within the theatre represented by the mini-play based on the "commedia dell´arte" degenerates into tragedy when Canio demands her lover´s name, Nedda refuses and he kills both her and Silvio, the culprit.
Mascagni´s sincerity and melodic gift make "Cavalleria..." enjoyable, though the libretto could be bettered (Mamma Lucia, Turiddu´s mother, is colorless; and the action take a long time to get going). Leoncavallo is much richer and innovative: the start is marvelous, as the Prologue sings to the audience explaining that what they are about to see is true life. And the characters are much more complex, especially the deformed villain Tonio and Canio.
"Cav-Pag", as the Met always bills it, is still very famous all over the world. The Colón has staged it regularly, though the elapsed time now has been greater: 15 years. My mother used to reminisce about the 1917 Caruso performance, when she was a little girl; my mind goes back to 1968, when Bergonzi and Bumbry moved me in "Cavalleria..." and the magnificent Jon Vickers (recently deceased) and Cornell MacNeil left indelible memories. And in good productions by Margarita Wallmann.
This time we have a Caminito "Cav-Pag". My reaction: no way! But others may feel differently. José Cura means it as an homage to the Italian immigrants of the 1900s, but La Boca isn´t Sicily or Calabria. And certainly tango has no place at all in those verista masterpieces, deeply Down South Italy. This is what he did and you will decide if it is a cup of tea that attracts you or not.
a) He joins both dramas as if they were originally thought as a diptych; thus, a pregnant Santuzza, Mamma Lucia and the couple Alfio-Lola, plainly in bad terms, appear in "I Pagliacci".
b) The tango appears from the very beginning of "Cavalleria...", with "Caminito" sung by Gardel; Cura even adds a bandoneon in the Intermezzo (plus a couple dancing), and the intermission between both operas gives us a tango and milonga miniconcert by bandoneon player Juan Kujta. Lights are kept low and if you want to read the programme you have to go to the foyer.
c) He changes two key final phrases: "Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu!" isn´t yelled offstage but said softly by Santuzza. And at the end of "I Pagliacci", incredibly, it isn´t Canio that says "La commedia è finita" but Mamma Lucia!
d) There are plenty of other arbitrary changes but space precludes going on. I will only mention three: Alfio, a rough carter, now drives a Ford T! Silvio, Nedda´s lover, is a protégé of Mamma Lucia. And the four members of Canio´s comedy are now expanded to a small circus including freaks.
If you accept all this, the show is rather handsome, with a nice unit set (Caminito plus a church) by Cura, good dramatic marking and crowd handling, and adequate costumes (again, if you accept the changes).
The musical side had a characteristic: all the singers were Argentine. In "Cavalleria..." I was impressed by Guadalupe Barrientos, singing with a full expressive voice and acting with passionate involvement. Enrique Folger was intense as Turiddu, Mariana Rewerski was a tempting Lola and Anabella Carnevali showed a substantial contralto voice as Mamma Lucia. Leonardo Estévez as Alfio was correct.
Cura remains a dramatic artist, but his voice has lost much of its beauty and firmness. Fabián Veloz was an effective Prologue (not his fault if he didn´t sing in front of the drop curtain) and Tonio, with a healthy baritone though without the subtlety or punch of a MacNeil. Mónica Ferracani, as in 2.000, sang Nedda with élan and fine looks. Beppe/Arlecchino was well acted and rather poorly sung by Sergio Spina. And Silvio was dully expressed by Gustavo Ahualli.
The experienced maestro Roberto Paternostro, well-known here, did a very good job, with natural expansion where needed and fine support of the singers. An orchestra with small smudges but otherwise good, and enthusiastic contributions of both choirs (mixed and children´s), were positive elements.
For Buenos Aires Herald