If your only exposure to opera has been limited to The Bugs Bunny & Tweety show’s take on a Robert Wagner’s ring classic in “Kill the Wabbit” , we won’t hold it against you because hey, opera’s not for everyone! Especially since the grandiose tales of heroic adventures and kings and queens aren’t all relatable to the general public. However, the double bill being staged by Opera Lyra until September 17 at the NAC with Pagliacci and Calleveria Rusticana are rooted in reality, albeit 1870’s Italy.
Cavalleria Rusticana composed by Pietro Mascagni, inspired by a play by Verga, takes place in Calabria, Southern Italy on Easter Morning and is considered the first of the verismo opera movement (“true to life”). Filled with misery, betrayal, revenge, adultery and Catholic guilt, the opera began surprisingly slow with choral hymns and even a church procession that interrupted the flow of the action (with lyrics of course all in Latin).
Santuzza (Lisa Daltrius) is a woman in-love wronged by Turrido (Richard Crawley), her lover who has run off with another man’s wife, Lola. Santuzza has been excommunicated by the church for this infidelity and watches as others cheerfully enter while begging Mamma Lucia (Emilia Boteva). Santuzza is pregnant but before she can tell Turrido, she is publicly humiliated and shunned by those she seeks help from including tavern owners and church representatives. Her beautiful yet emotional pained sung-soliloquy immediately wins the audience’s sympathy and almost creates a voyeuristic quality in that her actions (of cutting her hair and pinning it to the church door) are so primal and fueled by anger.
Expertly conducted by Richard Buckley, the orchestra’s skills at tackling these two masterpieces were not overlooked despite the talent onstage (whereas they were in the pit). Much of Cavelleria Rusticana movement was string-orientated, and it was nice to hear a bit of harp make its way through the wall of sound.
My date and I were amazed to not see the singers sipping water considering the intense complexity of vocal requirements and volume (all un-microphoned) achieved by the actors. While those expecting to see elaborate costumes will be disappointed in that because these operas are of “common people”, they were common clothes so for instance in Cavelleria Rustica most actors were in black, though there were some nice suits. The excellent attention to detail in the crucifix and religious robes did not go unnoticed.
Folk-songs abounded with a less-modern version of “I’ll drink to that,” with the passing out of sparkling wine after the Easter service that eventually leads to Turrido and Alfio challenging each other to a passionate duel. The use of popular folk songs like this are a stark contrast to the uninhibited, raw emotions of characters like Santuzza who literally screams, in octave inspiring operatic-style, in the street for her love to find her. She is jealous of Lola and there is a wonderful act where beautiful Lola is first introduced and Santuzza sits by the side and watches scornfully, her hurt plain to see and hear with her comments that go ignored by the two.
Violent vocal outbursts complete with sobs juxtapose the happy-go-lucky folk songs that are established at the beginning of the opera. Santuzza’s loneliness and fright apparent in her wandering the Italian streets are unglamorous but ultimately brilliantly sung by Lisa Daltrius. Just as the pace of the opera picks up and has the audience members on the edge of their seats a woman cries out Turrido has been killed and curtains fall making the end. Given that it was only a one-act piece of about 50 minutes, the ending caught me off guard as I wanted to see what happened next. Regardless, a wonderful night of extremely talented singers and musicians that are worthwhile seeing if you feel like rubbing elbows with diplomats and glamorous classical music fans.
Pagliacci and Calleveria Rusticana runs September 17 at the National Arts Centre; tickets available online here.