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Opera Essentials: Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci

Our quick introduction to this classic pairing of two highly dramatic Italian operas.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

20 November 2015 at 3.00pm | 1 Comment

The Story Begins…

In Cavalleria rusticana, Turiddu has seduced Santuzza, but abandoned her to return to his former (now married) girlfriend. What will Santuzza do in revenge? Meanwhile in Pagliacci, the actor Canio finds his wife Nedda is unfaithful – just as they are about to enact a comic play about a cuckolded husband. Will the show go on?

Verismo’s Greatest Triumphs

Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are examples of the verismo movement that influenced Italian opera from about 1890 to 1920. Verismo is characterized by realistic (often violent) depictions of everyday life, usually focussing on poor and working-class characters. Cavalleria rusticana was based on a story and play by the Sicilian realist writer Giovanni Verga, while Leoncavallo — who wrote his own scenario and libretto — claimed that Pagliacci was inspired by a true story.

Vivid Characterization

Within tightly-constructed dramas, Mascagni and Leoncavallo paint vivid portraits of their characters. Santuzza’s sincerity is conveyed in her ‘Easter Hymn’, and Turiddu’s volatile nature in his lively Brindisi and anguished aria ‘Mamma, quel vino è generoso!’. Nedda’s yearning aria ‘Stridono lassù’ arouses our sympathy for her, while Canio’s anguish is given moving voice in his ‘Vesti la giubba’. Leoncavallo even introduces a touch of black comedy with his stylized music for the ‘play within a play’ in Pagliacci’s Act II.

Recklessness and Fatalism

Damiano Michieletto’s production links Mascagni and Leoncavallo’s operas by having them set in the same poverty-stricken village in 1980s Italy. While the younger characters (Turiddu, Nedda, Silvio) struggle to escape their dreary routine lives — often with tragic results — the older ones, such as Mamma Lucia, are resigned to their harsh fates and seek consolation in religion.

A Successful Pairing

Cavalleria rusticana won the 1889 Sonzogno Competition, and soon achieved worldwide acclaim. The success of Pagliacci’s premiere in 1892 almost equalled that of Cavalleria rusticana. They are the first and only operas by both Mascagni and Leoncavallo to have gained a lasting place in the repertory. This is the first time that the operas have been performed as a pair by The Royal Opera since the 1980s.

Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci runs 3 December 2015–1 January 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production is a co-production with Opera Australia, La Monnaie, Brussels, and The Göteborg Opera, and is given with  generous philanthropic support from the Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

This article has 1 comment

  1. I have just returned from the Cav/Pag dress rehearsal. The production and sets were excellent, but the person responsible for the lighting needs to be informed that the people sitting on the balcony on the left side of the theatre are completely blinded by the dazzling floodlights shining from the back of the stage through the window of the bakery during a large part of Cavalleria Rusticana. My companions and I couldn't look directly at the stage and had to cover our eyes during extended periods of what was musically a wonderful performance.

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