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.
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.
As soon as Canio has gone off drinking with Beppe, Tonio starts to pester Nedda, saying that he may look like a monster but one day he’ll have Nedda for his own. Nedda gets angry and eventually lunges out at him, at which Tonio swears to get even with her. It so happens that Nedda’s unhappy with Canio but is too poor to escape. She has a lover in the village, however, called Silvio, and when he shows up he offers to take her away with him that evening. She tentatively agrees, and they have a brief time together in the bushes. Tonio sees them, however, and hurries off to fetch Canio who tries to chase Silvio, but fails. It’s now time for the play, and as Canio puts on his clown’s makeup he sings the opera’s most famous aria, Vesti la giubba (‘put on the costume’) — he must act the clown even though his heart is broken.
The play begins with Canio and Nedda very nearly acting out their real-life situation. Gradually real life overtakes Canio, and his demands to know the name of Nedda’s lover become more and more violent. Finally Silvio, watching in the audience, can bear it no longer and rushes onstage to Nedda’s help, at which Canio, who now knows his adversary’s identity, stabs them both to death, using a knife handed him by Tonio.
The TSO are remaining tight-lipped about what kind of productions these are going to be, but an informant in the cast has said that the interpretations will be unusual, and the costumes modern in style — something in the manner of Lady Gaga. What also appears clear is that they’ll contain dance elements, rarely seen in these works. The guest conductor is Johannes Wildner (who in 2007 nearly got the job of music director of the National Symphony Orchestra).
As for the soloists, two great Taiwan stars are sharing the role of Nedda, with Mewas Lin (林惠珍) singing it on Thursday Sept. 6 and Saturday Sept. 8 and Grace Lin (林慈音) taking the role on Friday Sept. 7 and Sunday afternoon, Sept. 9. Another famous Taiwan soloist, Wu Bai Yu-hsi (巫白.玉璽), will sing Tonio in Pagliacci on Sept. 6 and Sept. 8, and Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana on Sept. 7 and Sept. 9. Lu Ping (陸蘋), who sang the Princess in Sour Angelica in March, will be Mama Lucia in all four performances of Cavalleria Rusticana.
As with all opera, there’s considerable benefit to be gained from getting to know the music in advance. DVD, with its multi-lingual subtitles, is the best way to do this, and here there are three products that can be unreservedly recommended. Franco Zefirelli’s films of the two operas, together on one DVD, is in many ways unimprovable. With Placido Domingo in both (as Turiddu and Canio), plus Elena Obraztsova as Santuzza and Teresa Stratas as Nedda, and the La Scala Milan orchestra and chorus, they must stand as first choice (DG 0734033). But the versions conducted by Karajan, with Jon Vickers as Canio and Peter Glossop as Tonio, are almost as good (DG 0734389). Another outstanding performance of Pagliacci, with Juan Pons and Pavarotti, comes from James Levine and his New York forces, coupled this time with Puccini’s one-act opera Il Tabarro (‘the cloak’), with Pons and Domingo (DG 0734024).
This pair of operas makes for an unequalled experience. To see them staged with strong casts and in an attractive, medium-sized auditorium like the Metropolitan Hall is sure to be an unalloyed pleasure.