30 November 2015 at 3.48pm | Comment on this article
The events of Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria rusticana take place in a small village in southern Italy on Easter Day. Central to the story is the Easter service in the church, a vital focus in such a community’s life. The opera’s characters and their narrative are introduced before the service, and the violent conclusion takes place during celebrations after. The famous orchestral Intermezzo marks the passage of time as the service takes place (there is even an organ sustaining chords in the middle of the orchestral sound). But we don’t see the service itself. Instead, we hear it.
The grand Easter Hymn, scored for pretty much the whole cast of the opera, starts with just a solo organ playing from inside the church nearby. Then we hear an unaccompanied choir singing (in Latin) the beginning of the service – ‘Regina coeli, laetare’ – with the voices of the congregation responding ‘Alleluja!’. The choir sings two more phrases and the congregation responds. All this is out of sight.
In fact, the focus of the number is on the villagers on stage in the piazza, waiting to process into the church. This chorus now picks up a new section of the hymn, echoing the choral style of the church choir: ‘Inneggiamo, il Signor non è morto’ – 'Rejoice, for the Lord has risen'. They are accompanied by steady chords in trumpets and trombones, which bring both rhythmic interest in the repeating triplets and solemnity in the instrumental tone. After this response of the community, we again hear the organ as the ritual continues.
At this point, opera truly takes over the music. Organ and four-part choral singing give way to orchestra, solo soprano – Santuzza, a central character of the drama – and a wonderfully lyrical melody that just keeps rising higher and higher, phrase by phrase. This is the sincere expression of religious belief by Santuzza, made all the more poignant by her situation: because of her illicit affair, she considers herself unworthy of entering the church to take part in the service. Instead she sings in what builds in stages into a huge chorus involving everyone in the village.
Santuzza’s introduction of the main melody is given a short response by the assembled villagers, who echo her final words, with a further response of ‘Allelujah!’ from the choir inside the church. Then the melody is taken up by the chorus – but it doesn’t just repeat. It extends into a section that hovers round the top notes as Santuzza and the sopranos sing a high phrase that the tenors echo back to them, and which then descends.
The build-up keeps going. The way the music rises – as though depicting in sound Jesus rising from the grave Heavenwards – is developed by Mascagni with a vengeance in pitch and alternating voices, broadening out into the fullest sound so far. Suddenly, the sound drops away, with an increasing rhythmic urgency as voices come in one by one, building up to a statement by everyone of the original main tune. There is one more impression of the forces gradually diminishing, but it is really a preparation for the full-on conclusion.
Little happens during this number that advances the story of Cavalleria rusticana. The narrative of confrontation, betrayal, revenge and murder happens around it. Yet the Easter Hymn is compelling through its sheer aural drama: from distant introduction to massed ensemble, the evocation of ritual, dynamic contrasts of pitch and volume, and the uplifting effect of melody. The addition of the values of religion and community that are important backdrops to the narrative, just add to what is already its striking dramatic effectiveness.
Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci runs 3 December 2015–1 January 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 10 December 2015. Find your nearest cinema and sign up to our mailing list.