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Ensemble

Mesmerizing Propulsion

'Cav' and 'Pag' in St Louis,
reviewed by SUSAN HAMPTON

 

Cavalleria Rusticana tells a story of love, hate and betrayal. During the sun-drenched afternoon of a Sicilian Easter, a woman has discovered a body. The opera pulls no punches in telling the story of the love, passion, rejection and betrayal that led up to the killing.

On 15 October 2008, the Touhill Performing Arts Center of the University of Missouri at Saint Louis presented the verismo double bill of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's equally down-to-earth Pagliacci as performed in a new production by the renowned touring company, Teatro Lirico d'Europa. These two operas make a perfect combination but over the last few seasons, some companies have played Pagliacci alone, so the glorious music of Cavalleria has become somewhat less familiar of late.

Santuzza (Olga Chernisheva) pleads with Turiddu (Gabriel Gonzalez) in Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo © 2008 Robin Grant
Santuzza (Olga Chernisheva) pleads with Turiddu (Gabriel Gonzalez) in Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo © 2008 Robin Grant

Both works date from a period when enhanced realism was the ruling literary style. Mascagni took his story from Giovanni Verga's 1883 dramatization of his novella about love and death in a Sicilian village. Two of the composer's friends, Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci, wrote the libretto. The piece won a competition sponsored by the publishing house of Sanzogno, and its première on 17 May 1890 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome was a rousing success.

Leoncavallo said the story of his opera came from the account of a court case that his father, a judge, had once tried. It may have started there, but the composer, who wrote his own libretto, is thought to have also borrowed aspects of the story from a French play by Catulle Mendès, La Femme de Tabarin. There are several similarities and the composer was living in Paris when it was performed there.

Olga Chernisheva as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo © 2008 Robin Grant
Olga Chernisheva as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo © 2008 Robin Grant

Stage Director Giorgio Lalov brought out all the passionate expression of the lovers embroiled in the stories of these engrossing operas. Olga Chernisheva was a lovely but troubled Santuzza who simply could not control her obsession with Turiddu, even though she knew he was no longer in love with her. She used the many colours in her opulent voice to express her love for the village playboy and to describe her despair when she realizes he will never care for her again. She has the clear ringing high notes as well as the emotion-filled chest tones that this role calls for and she used them with artistic eloquence.

Turiddu had been in love with Lola before her marriage to the wealthy Alfio. He courted Santuzza on the rebound, but lately Lola wanted him back again whenever her husband traveled on business. As Turiddu, Gabriel Gonzalez began as a devil-may-care youth but evolved into a man who eventually realized that his thoughtless actions could result in fatal consequences. His angry duet with Santuzza was a gripping ride on an emotional roller-coaster. Both singers are masters in creating vocal passion and their close harmonies were delectable. Svetomira Gitsova was a dutiful Mamma Lucia who seemed used to tying up the loose ends of Turiddu's untidy life.

Gabriel Gonzalez as Turiddu with chorus. Lola (Snejana Dramcheva) and Svetomira Gitsova (Mama Lucia) are at the far right. Photo © 2008 Robin Grant
Gabriel Gonzalez as Turiddu with chorus. Lola (Snejana Dramcheva) and Svetomira Gitsova (Mama Lucia) are at the far right. Photo © 2008 Robin Grant

As Lola, Alfio's unfaithful wife, Snejana Dramcheva was a charming village temptress with an enticing smile and a lustrous sound. One wonders if her feminine wiles were able to turn away Alfio's wrath after he finished with Turiddu. Baritone Theodore Lambrinos was a rough and ready Alfio with a huge resonant voice. He commanded the stage and left no doubt that he expected total obedience from his new young wife.

Much of Mascagni's drama comes from his surging, iridescent score. Under the direction of Krassimir Topolov, the Teatro Lirico D'Europa orchestra expressed it with mesmerizing propulsion. The brass section was particularly evocative in its accompaniment of the characters' passion-filled moments.

Pagliacci: Christin Molnar as Nedda pleads with her husband Canio, played by Viorel Saplacan, as Tonio (Theodore Lambrinos) looks on. Photo © 2008 Robin Grant
Pagliacci: Christin Molnar as Nedda pleads with her husband Canio, played by Viorel Saplacan, as Tonio (Theodore Lambrinos) looks on. Photo © 2008 Robin Grant

After the intermission, it was Tonio the Clown's turn to introduce us to Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and to remind us that clowns are real people with breakable hearts. When Lambrinos again unleashed his large bronze-toned voice we knew we could expect another fine performance from the one leading performer to appear in both operas.

Viorel Saplacan was a tall, muscular Canio who guarded his young and supple wife, Nedda, with jealous rage. He sang with a strong voice that expressed his physical strength and his devastating emotional vulnerability. As Nedda, Christin Molnar was a graceful flirt who obviously longed to be as free as the birds flying overhead. She loathed the unattractive Tonio and let him know it in no uncertain terms. At the same time, she sang with silvery soprano tones and her voice blended admirably with the virile tones of Plamen Dimitrov as Silvio.

The chorus looks on as Canio (Viorel Saplacan) kneels over the bodies of Silvio (Plamen Dimitrov) and Nedda (Christin Molnar), in the finale of Pagliacci. Photo © 2008 Robin Grant
The chorus looks on as Canio (Viorel Saplacan) kneels over the bodies of Silvio (Plamen Dimitrov) and Nedda (Christin Molnar), in the finale of Pagliacci. Photo © 2008 Robin Grant

Georgi Dinev helped convey the bite of the drama as Beppe but, in the long run, it was the emotionally intense Tonio who fomented the action, and it was he who announced 'The comedy is finished', when the tragedy was complete. As with the first half of this double bill, the orchestra and chorus brought both composers' intentions to life and gave a sizzling account of these verismo pieces.

This excellent performance at the Touhill Performing Arts Center was rewarded with a standing ovation. It is just one of the many that Teatro Lirico D'Europa will bring to diverse theatres and their varied audiences across the country from Maine to Florida and from New York to California during the 2008-2009 season.

Copyright © 21 October 2008 Susan Hampton, Los Angeles, USA

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