Cavalleria Rusticana (‘rustic chivalry’) and Pagliacci (‘clowns’) are the most famous, and the best, one-act Italian operas ever written. Put together — and they are almost always done together — they constitute an incomparable double-bill. They have everything, it seems — fabulous music that’s both popular in nature and yet comparable with the best in the genre, three or four stunning roles apiece, and superbly crafted plots (Pagliacci especially).
Whether they’re sung by incompetent amateurs or the finest soloists in the world — and all the greatest singers have, it seems, made certain they recorded them — these two operas can hardly fail. They also share the characteristics of their era, the style that was called “verismo” or “realism.” Instead of displaying the lives of gods and heroes, they show the lives of ordinary people, in particular the poor, usually against highly realistic sets. In addition, both tell tales of sexual jealousy that end in murder — jealousy among men who have little in the world except their pride, and murders that take place in both cases in the final seconds of the opera.
Cavalleria Rusticana was performed first, in 1890, after winning a competition for the best new one-act opera. It was a gigantic success and all the opera houses of Europe clamored for the right to stage it. Pagliacci followed three years later. Since then they’ve been inseparable. Neither composer — Mascagni or Leoncavallo — achieved any comparable success ever again.
Even so, it’s an interesting question why Cavalleria Rusticana is almost always performed first. I’ve been unable to find any convincing answer to this, but it so happens that the Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO), which is staging the two operas from Sept. 6 to Sept. 9 in Taipei’s Metropolitan Hall, is performing Pagliacci first. There’s never seemed to me any reason for the usual order.
What: Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana
When: Sept. 6 to Sept. 8 at 7pm (note the early start), and Sept. 9 at 2:30pm
Where: Metropolitan Hall (城市舞台), 25 Bade Rd Sec 3, Taipei (臺北市八德路三段25號)
Admission: NT$500 to NT$2,000, available from www.artsticket.com.tw, or by calling 02-2577-5931
The plot of Cavalleria Rusticana (the title is strongly ironic) is as follows. Turiddu, a romantic young Sicilian, has been sleeping with Santuzza, but he’s unable to shake off his obsession with Lola, a former girl-friend who’s now married. At the start of the opera he’s seen leaving her bed (her husband’s out of the village for the night) and riding away in the dawn. But Santuzza catches sight of him. She visits his mother, Mama Lucia, and unburdens her heart. It’s Easter Sunday, but her pre-marital relationship with Turiddu has resulted in her being banned from taking communion. Lola’s husband, Alfio, returns, and outside a wine-shop opposite the church (run by Mama Lucia) Santuzza tells him the truth. He subsequently challenges Turiddu to a duel, and kills him.
The most celebrated moment in the music is the orchestral “Intermezzo,” just before Alfio challenges Turiddu. But the Easter Hymn, sung by the chorus and Santuzza, is equally famous.
The plot of Pagliacci involves a group of traveling players — Canio and his wife Nedda, the deformed Tonio, and Beppe. The play they routinely perform is the old “commedia del arte” story in which an ageing husband (played by Canio) is deceived by a younger lover. When they arrive at a new village to perform this play someone jokes to Canio about the plot, and Canio replies that it’s all very well as fiction, but if anyone tried it in real life there’d be trouble.