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Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana & Leoncavallo: Pagliacci

Opus Arte // Unrated // February 24, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted March 3, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
I don't know if it's sad or funny that a lot of Baby Boomers like myself were first exposed to Pagliacci through that old commercial where the clown sang, "Chips like my pizza, like my beautiful pizza." If you're too young to remember that one, count yourself lucky that one of the most famous standalone arias in all operatic repertoire, Canio's tormented "Vesti la Giubba" wasn't forever imprinted in your mind as a cheap Doritos ad. Since the late 19th century, both Pagliacci and the thematically related Cavelleria Rusticana, both of them together running just a little over two hours, have been paired in performance, colloquially known as "Cav and Pag." That pairing is followed in this new BD, which also links the two in quick bridging moment at the end of Cavelleria, which literally spills over into the first crowd scene of Pagliacci. (As in a lot of especially more modern pairings, Pagliacci's prologue, a virtual sung exposition of what the verismo movement was all about, is placed up front, before Cavelleria).

Both of these works deal with infidelity, and they both feature tormented couples ending up in murderous rages. The verismo movement was the "kitchen sink drama" of its day, an attempt to dramatize the unwashed masses and their supposedly more "authentic" emotions. What actually ended up happening was simply giving the intense emotional bravura of operatic language to a new class of dramatis personae; while one can argue about whether verismo fundamentally changed the tenor (no pun intended) of opera, the fact is, whether sung theater is dealing with Queen Aida or the peasant girl Santuzza in Rusticana, there's an overwhelming passion of expression that only grand opera can provide, and both Cav and Pag have it in abundance.

Cavelleria Rusticana deals with two intertwined couples, linked through the amorous yearnings of Turiddu, long in love with Lola, who, upon returning from battle, discovers she has wed someone else. He then takes up with Santuzza, but Lola lures him back with her siren call. Cav is short (one act), and basically a showpiece for Santuzza and Turiddu, with Lola and her cuckolded husband Alfio lending support, along with Turiddu's mother. The entire piece plays out in "real time," on Easter Day. This particular staging of Cav is minimalist in the extreme. The set consists of whitewashed rocks that look something akin to Stonehenge after a massive earthquake. All of the cast members are clad entirely in black, giving a stark visual presentation that helps to underscore the bleak emotional terrain that's being mined.

Pagliacci, by contrast, is supposed to be a colorful circus sideshow, which in and of itself runs counterpoint to the roiling emotional undercurrents which provide the opera with its soaring melodies. This particular production doesn't exactly capitalize on that propensity, clothing some of the fair goers in drab grays and beiges, but it nonetheless has the emotional vibrancy that's required to bring the strange dichotomy of "on with the show" playing out against "I want you dead." Pagliacci ups the ante considerably by layering a "show within a show," which leads to the climactic scene of revenge. All of the leading players in the opera are part of a Commedia dell'Arte troupe, and Leoncavallo brilliantly weaves together the traditional characters of that idiom within the verismo world of Canio, the cuckolded husband of Nedda. By the time the two are onstage together at the end of the play, both the "audience" onstage who is witnessing the proceedings and the "real" audience watching the opera are perhaps confused by what is "art" and what is "real." In a way, it tips verismo on its head and sees it through a funhouse mirror, albeit perhaps from a house of horrors.

Leoncavallo wrote Pagliacci as an actual "answer" to Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Therefore it's no surprise the two fit together so effortlessly. In this particular production, that seam is even more tightly sewn as the dead body of Turiddu is carried through the townsfolk who are proclaiming the coming of the Commedia dell'Arte troupe at the head of Pagliacci's first act. It's interesting that neither of these composers really experienced anything similar to the substantial success stories these individual operas wrought for them, and it becomes more interesting that the two seem to be forever linked now in operatic tradition.

All of the principals in both of these productions do excellent work. In Cav, Violeta Urmana makes a heartbreaking Santuzza, with a full-bodied voice that reveals her mezzo roots even as she soars stratospherically. Vincenzo La Scola's Turiddu is a study in duplicity and confusion born of conflicting amorous desires, and La Scola's beautiful tenor handles Mascagni's expressive melodies with ease. On the Pag side, the honors obviously go to Vladimir Galouzine as Canio. Following in the footsteps of such famous tenors as Caruso (whose recording of the "pizza" aria--sorry--was one of the first million selling records) and Pavarotti must be a daunting task, but this accomplished Russian doesn't seem to be too fazed. With a towering upper range, Galouzine pulls every last ounce out of Canio's torment and ultimate rage. The comedy may be over (to paraphrase Pagliacci's denouement), but Galouzine seems fated to a long and successful career as one of his generation's most commanding talents.

Though there's a spareness to director Giancarlo del Monaco's staging of these venerable pieces, the emotional content more than makes up for it. "Cav and Pag" may be old friends, as it were, but in these compelling interpretations, they feel refreshingly new and vivid.

The Blu-ray

There's more than a bit of monochromaticism going on in these operas, which deprives the BD's 1.78:1 AVC transfer of some pop. That said, this is a sharp and brilliantly well-defined picture, with consistent black levels and superb contrast. Colors perk up, at least a little, on the "Pag" side of things, and there the palette, while restrained, is full-bodied and well saturated.

Both the PCM 2.0 and 5.0 mixes are excellent, if not overwhelmingly immersive. Voices are all reproduced splendidly, covering the incredible ranges of these singers perfectly. The orchestral accompaniments courtesy of the Madrid Symphony under the baton of Jesus Lopez Cobos are clear and well defined, with beautiful reproduction of everything from achingly emotional strings to boisterous brass. Subtitles are available in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.

Aside from a fairly useless cast gallery, there is a nice interview featurette with director del Monaco, musical director Cobos and four of the principal singers.

Final Thoughts:
"Cav and Pag" are two of the most distinctive operas from the late 19th century, pieces that came to define the verismo movement. If you're a fan of Italian neo-realism in film and are unfamiliar with this movement that came over a half century previous to it, you may be amazed by the similarities of intent, if not actual content. Highly recommended.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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