BLO Cavalleria rusticana: Dramatic Verismo Mayhem
Two years ago, the Boston Lyric Opera presented the circus of Pagliacci at the Steriti Memorial ice rink (review HERE). This weekend, BLO is honoring the work most often programmed opposite: the in one act by Pietro Mascagni verism the tragedy Cavalleria rusticana (1890)
This succinct opera has the tone of a modern thriller and lets us contemplate the deadly consequences of infidelity and jealousy for five members of a tight-knit community. Returning to the live performances on the Boston Waterfront after a successful eight-part online miniseries during the pandemic (discussion HERE and review HERE), this outdoor night started with a remarkable addition: Pagliaccithe famous prologue to, skillfully and enthusiastically sung by Chilean baritone Javier Arrey; starting from a spectacular alleyway in the audience, he made his way to the stage.
Cavalleria started around 7:50 p.m., competing throughout the evening with expected (regular) plane take-offs and a noisy rock event in the seaport area that bounced off a building behind the left area of the stage. The spectators moved on three lines (vaccination card / recent test, security, tickets / ushers, before being directed to their seats. The listeners could settle down to explore different acoustic possibilities and seek a more spacious “distance”, since only the front half of the spacious Leader Bank Pavillion was packed.
A trio of three modern ballet dancers (barefoot, in gray), choreographed by Levi Marsman, was omnipresent during the first and last third of Cavalleria. While they weren’t always captured on the side screens during the singers’ video close-ups, their interpretive antics could be clearly seen from all points of view. Sometimes acting like a Greek choir and sometimes depicting festive elements like flowers and crowds, dancers Victoria Awkward, Machayla Kelly and Marissa Molinar formed a sinuous and bubbling unit. They added much needed life and movement to the entire production, although they performed surprisingly: they took time off from the long orchestral Intermezzo which takes place during the Easter service attended by Lola and Turiddu, while ‘they frantically surrounded Lola, waving her off the stage in the final scene (surrounding her and nearly carrying her away).
Director Giselle Ty created an intricate, melodramatic scene to the fore through a painstakingly mimed introduction for soloists and dancers. This contrasted sharply with the rest of the production, based on arrangements, stacks and barricades of bright yellow rattan café chairs (Julia Noulin-Mêrat, scenography) and modern clothing in Crayola colors for each of the protagonists (Gail Astrid Buckley, costume design). Since the orchestra and choir took up half of the un-raked performance space, with a monumental black curtain supporting them, the lighting tended towards brilliant monochromatic washes (pinks and blues were most effective. to set or change the mood), with occasional abstract patterns projected above the orchestra, directly onto the curtain (Molly Tiede, lighting designer).
Two speaker benches suspended above the central stage amplified and projected the performers into the microphone. Those in the center 50% of the seating area had no trouble hearing most of Mascagni’s delicate orchestral touches and following every word of the story, but the fairly loud uproar from the surrounding seaport made these more difficult sections the further away from the stage. The slender architecture of the Pavilion’s circus tent is open on the sides, fostering a party atmosphere more akin to Café Momus than to a Sicilian working-class village at Easter.
The chorus from the top of the stage (in black), standing singing, sounded robust, well balanced and well prepared by Brett Hodgdon. Its sound projected with real substance, with a particularly appealing tenor section sound, although its power sometimes overbalanced Santuzza. In the ensemble number “Let us sing hymns”, with its famous soaring melody, the choir and orchestra combined in a spectacularly moving and effective progressive crescendo, performed by the trio of dancers.
Tenor Adam Diegel began subtly with Turiddu’s “off stage” siciliana, performed here from the center of the dark orchestra of the stage, facing the well-lit conductor David Angus on the far left of the stage. His portrayal of the central bad boy (dressed in royal blue) started quietly but gained strength and momentum after the powerful church scene and the first two duets. Her bright, ringing tone was fittingly associated with local favorite Michelle Johnson (winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council’s Grand Prix Auditions), whose Santuzza (in bright yellow) towered over each duet she sang. As Johnson sang his best works of the evening, “And I loved him” and “I’m damned,” laments Diegel finally gained attention during his drinking song, although he chose to perform the track as a series of very short, separate sequences. sentences, giving it a breathtakingly cut lightness.
It was impossible to look away (or ears) from Chelsea Basler’s Lola (dressed in red). Since beginning his association with BLO as an emerging artist in 2013, Basler’s free and flexible soprano voice has been an important part of the productions of Carmen (Micaëla, 2016), Handmaid’s Tale (Moira, 2019), and the recent Operabox.tv production by Phillip Glass The Fall of House Usher (Madéline). Her magnetic stage presence and wide, open legato approach to the city’s flirtatious role helped audiences understand how Turiddu could be torn between two women.
The tragic Alfio of baritone Javier Arrey (in purple and pink) was the discovery of the evening. After his recent debut as Shaunard at the Met, Arrey captured audiences with his overture Prologue and brought new depth to her role in the Mascagni as a cuckold husband. He chose to vary his timbre and volume throughout, adding a surprising undertone to Alfio and making him a clearer victim of the circumstances (in a sense, a dramatic foil more equal to Santuzza).
English captions appeared on two large video screens in large blocks of text supported by an opaque black rectangle, on live close-ups of the singers. While still easy to read, the opacity overshadowed the action a bit too much. Translations proved helpful, but hardly ever continued during text rehearsals, so some longer (repeated) passages only had video elements, without such a clear sense of the story.
Principal flute Ann Bobo shone in the opening orchestral music; she brought intimacy to the orchestral response to Lola’s first scene. Bruce Hall’s solo trumpet playing occupied a highlight of the production: his seemingly effortless, uplifting melodies in Alfio’s first aria and perfectly tuned work during the great hallelujah chorus balance well with the confident contributions of Brendan Shapiro’s legato organ. During these moments, the show completely transported audiences from a modern urban concert space to the interior of a church service in southern Italy.
The playing of the harpist Amanda Romano Foreman was revealed with a beautiful delicacy, but not as close as the winds. The strings, led by solo violin Annie Rabbat and solos Sarah Atwood (violin II), Kenneth Stalberg (viola), Meloanie Dyball (cello) and Robert Lynam (bass), performed with excellent ensemble and flexibility. Their concluding music, supporting the final fall from grace and the collapse of Satuzza, reached power and emotion. The quarter-arc arrangement facing the left of the stage (rather than the usual half-arc around a central point), provided a constant backdrop for the vocal soloists.
Reflections from the creative team
Reflecting on BLO’s return to full performance, Stanford Calderwood Acting General and Artistic Director Bradley Vernatter praised not only the resilience of the company’s artists, staff, board and supporters, but also a shared belief in the power of music and storytelling: “The work involved in making a production of this scale is monumental; it requires an accomplished team and a united community. I am proud that BLO kept the artists employed through our digital projects and Street Stage performances during the most difficult days of the pandemic. But it’s especially gratifying to provide so many opportunities for artists and production staff to join us for our first full opera, with a full orchestra and choir for a live audience, since the pandemic.
Playwright Cori Ellison reflects on the influence of this music on popular culture: “Cavalleria rusticana and verism have also made their way into American popular culture. In the climactic scene of The Godfather: Part III (1990) a performance of Cavalleria rusticana in Palermo, Sicily, with the son of opera singer Michael Corleone Anthony as Turiddu, provides an ironic counterpoint to Vincent Corleone’s vengeance against his family’s enemies and an assassination attempt on Michael Corleone. The opera’s symphonic Intermezzo returns in the final scene against the backdrop of Michael’s lonely death. A decade earlier, director Martin Scorsese had also used the Intermezzo as the opening of Angry bull (1980). ”
More to hear
Due to the larger capacity of the room, BLO presents Cavalleria twice, instead of the four performances announced previously (in rehearsal on Sunday at 3 p.m.). Upcoming BLO Presents the Local Premiere of Jazz Opera Champion, mobile performances throughout the city on the Street Stage performance space, and the drama (online) Svadba (marriage) for six a cappella voice, directed by Shura Baryshnikov (season information HERE).
Boston-area opera enthusiasts have plenty of other live productions to look forward to this fall, including two next weekend (Columbus Day weekend): a double lineup of one-act jazz opera from Bernstein Problem in Tahiti and Menotti The phone at Concord next weekend (info HERE). Later in October, the treats include a choreographed concert version of Jody Talbot’s new film Path of miracles by Boston Cecilia and ODC / Dance in Cambridge (info HERE), and two new operas broadcast live from the BU Fringe Festival: Kamala Sankaram’s The infinite energy of Ada Lovelace and Missy Mazzoli’s new opera To prove himself to (info HERE).