The Sarasota Opera opened its 2010 season this past weekend with the most paired of operas, Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” These two have been put on the same program for so long, by so many opera companies, that some people have thought Mascagni and Leoncavallo must have made some kind of deal that they be performed together in perpetuity. Of course, this is not the case.
It happens that they’re both reasonably short operas (60 to 75 minutes each); they each take place in Italy on a holiday (“Cavalleria” in a Sicilian village on Easter morning and “Pagliacci” in Calabria on the Feast of the Assumption); they are both in the “Verismo” (realism) style; they were written and premiered within two years of each other (“Cavalleria” in 1890 and “Pagliacci” in 1892); they both contain gorgeous music; and they’re both filled with passion, fire and so much Italian sturm und drang, you wonder how the singers can get through the plots without, well, plotzing.
But there’s a difference between them, too.
Leoncavallo based “Pagliacci” on the highly believable (true) story of an actor (Canio/Pagliaccio), who killed his actress wife (Nedda) on stage because she fell in love with someone else (Silvio). But Mascagni’s “Cavalleria” is, especially in today’s culture, a much less believable story, centering around a man (Turiddu) who was once in love with a woman (Lola), but Lola married while Turiddu was away. Heartbroken, Turiddu turns to Santuzza, promises to marry her and, then, cheats on her with Lola, causing Santuzza to lose her honor and become excommunicated from the church. It gets worse. Alfio, Lola’s husband, finds out about the affair and kills Turiddu.
Both of these stories are set to heart-wrenching, ear-ringing music, but it’s “Pagliacci” that wins, hands down, as the better opera — musically and dramatically.
It also won as the better performance at the Sarasota Opera, which was something of a mystery, because both operas featured many of the same singers.
Things started to go south almost immediately in “Cavalleria rusticana,” because, perhaps in their opening-night zeal, everyone on stage was oversinging to the point that nuance (not that there is much in this opera) was thrown to the wind. It started with Kara Shay Thomson’s highly charged portrait of Santuzza. This soprano — whom we heard last year in the title role of Sarasota Opera’s production of “Tosca” and whom we praised, writing, “ … there wasn’t a moment in the evening when Thomson came even close to oversinging or pushing” — amped up her ample voice so much this time around, she almost drowned out the orchestra. She’s too good a singer to do this.
Gustavo López Manzitti followed suit as a voluble but well-paced Turiddu; studio artists Cathleen Candia’s rather pallid Mamma Lucia and Stephanie Lauricella’s well-acted Lola both dangerously stretched their vocal limits; and Michael Corvino, as Alfio was so stiff and strident, we didn’t recognize this well-known Sarasota Opera presence.
Then the sun came out as the curtain rose on “Pagliacci.” Here, Corvino turned into a deviously believable Tonio, sounding so much better in the prologue that we thought he’d had a voice transplant. Manzitti, too, underwent a magical transformation, and his “Vesti la giubba” was both heartrending and beautifully performed.
Other members of the cast included Evan Brummel (Silvio) and Heath Huberg (Peppe), both studio artists and both good actors and lovely singers. And Aundi Marie Moore, in the role of Nedda, pretty much stole the show as a believable, beloved actress with a gorgeous voice to match.
The Sarasota Opera Orchestra, under the direction of Victor DeRenzi, played with style and beauty in both operas, and the always excellent chorus, while a little too raucous in “Cavalleria,” was perfect in “Pagliacci.”
David Gordon deserves extra bows for his stunning sets, especially the sun-streaked skies in both operas; costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s realistic garments were more appreciated in “Pagliacci” than “Cavalleria”; and Ken Yunker’s lighting was a shining example of perfection in both sets.
It’s a puzzlement how the same person, Stephanie Sundine, the stage director, is responsible for the impressive staging and acting in “Pagliacci” could have made “Cavalleria” so stodgy and static. But we can’t heap blame where it doesn’t belong. The composer and librettists of that melodrama were the real perpetrators. Sundine simply did the best she could.
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