The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What makes this weekend’s performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” classically Italian operas and especially inviting for beginners?

October 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera will open its new season this weekend with two performances of Pietro Mascagni’s  “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ”Pagliacci.”

Details about the productions in Overture Hall on Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. appeared in a previous posting that includes information about the cast and the tickets ($18-$131):

But Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the general director of the Madison Opera, recently agreed to a Q&A with The Ear to discuss the two operas more specifically and at length. Here are her comments:

A veteran opera-goer told the Ear that he considers these two works ideal operas for people new to the art form.  Do you agree?

I think almost any opera is perfect for someone new to opera – supertitles make it possible to understand the words, so one can just sit down and enjoy the show.

That said, “Cav and Pag” are definitely what many people think of when you say the words “Italian opera”: elemental stories of love, hate and jealousy that lead to tragedy.

Cavalleria Rusticana, which means “Rustic Chivalry,” tells about a woman named Santuzza who had been seduced and abandoned by a man named Turridu. On Easter Sunday, she attempts to get Turridu back, then tells the husband of his new lover about that affair, resulting in a duel.

Pagliacci, which means “Clowns,” tells about a traveling theater troupe. Nedda, the wife of the troupe’s leader, Canio, wants to run away with her lover Silvio after the evening performance. Canio finds out, but goes on with the show even though his heart is breaking. He then snaps during the performance and kills both Nedda and Silvio.

The music in both operas ranges from glorious choral music (the Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana is one of the most famous opera choruses of all time for good reason) to famous arias (particularly the aria “Vesti la Giubba” from Pagliacci, or at least the line “Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), to orchestral music that is well-known in its own right, such as Cavalleria’s intermezzo, which plays an integral role in the final scene of “The Godfather” film trilogy. (You can hear that famous Intermezzo used in “The Godfather” film in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

They are also compact: Each opera lasts about 70 minutes, so a lot gets packed into a short amount of time. (Below is the set of “Pagliaccio” rented from the New Orleans Opera.)

What are the shared elements that make the two operas so compatible that they are often presented together?

Pagliacci was written in response to Cavalleria Rusticana:  Ruggero Leoncavallo (below top) saw what a hit Pietro Mascagni (below bottom) had his 1890 one-act opera about real people propelled by love and revenge, and wrote his own version that premiered just two years later, in 1892.

There are some obvious parallels: both take place in small Italian villages, both take place on religious holidays, and both involve love triangles that end with someone dead. Plus the last line of each opera is spoken, not sung.

They also have musical similarities, as both have full orchestrations, large choral segments, and a style of vocal writing that calls for dramatic, expressive singing. As a result, the combined pairing makes a satisfying night of Italian opera, rather than being simply two operas that happen to be done on the same night.

Does one usually overshadow the other or are they equals?

It very much depends on the tastes of an individual audience member. When the operas were new, Cavalleria was definitely the more popular of the two – even Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she preferred it.

To modern eyes, Pagliacci may be more dramatically satisfying because more happens in it, such as the entire play-within-the-opera, which adds an element of humor to the high stakes of reality. But both are masterpieces in their own right, and the audience gets to enjoy them both.

Why do you think these verismo operas are still powerful today?

“Verismo” comes from the word “vero,” which means “true.” Cav and Pag tell stories about real people caught up in their lives, with all the emotional messiness that can entail – and those emotions are still driving people today.

Above all, the music of both operas is so powerful that it strikes to the heart of what opera can be. It can be thrilling, it can be moving, it can be funny – all in one night.

Is there something else you would like to say about the two operas and your production of them?

We have wonderful casts in each opera. Scott Piper (below top), who was last here as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, sings both Turridu and Canio; and Michael Mayes (below bottom), who was last here as the lead in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, sings both Alfio and Tonio.

We have two extraordinary sopranos making their debuts with us:  Michelle Johnson (below top) as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and Talise Trevigne (below bottom) as Nedda in Pagliacci.

The Pagliacci cast is completed by Benjamin Taylor making his debut as Silvio and Robert Goderich singing Beppe; the Cavalleria cast is completed by Danielle Wright as Lucia and Kirsten Larson as Lola.

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Classical music: Which well-known composers or works can’t you stand and consider overrated?

August 5, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

We all have them: Composers and well-known works we just don’t like and consider highly overrated.

Composers whose musical works are deemed masterpieces by some but just don’t speak to others.

The Ear recently saw a blog post on the Internet in which a musically sophisticated British listener ranted against Johannes Brahms (below) – the epitome for so many of carefully crafted, soulful late Romanticism — and about how unlistenable and overwritten Brahms’ music is.

The Ear also knows several people who think that the music of the Classical pioneer Franz Joseph Haydn (below) is boring beyond bearable, that his music is thoroughly second-rate or forgettable – even though the great contemporary American composer John Harbison calls Haydn the most undervalued and underplayed of the great composers.

The 12-tone, serial and atonal composers – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alan Berg – also come in for more than their fair share of dismissal.

For The Ear, one of those composers who divide the world in two – into those who love him and those who hate him – is Alexander Scriabin (below), the late Russian Romantic (1872-1915).

Oh, some of the early piano preludes and etudes are OK, largely thanks to the obvious influence of Chopin.

But even though Scriabin died young, he developed his own mature style, including the use of a mystical chord and a taste for apocalyptic and visionary frenzy .

To The Ear, those late works seem way too over-the-top and out-of-control, lacking in discernible structure and significance.

Not long ago, Wisconsin Public Radio played Scriabin’s symphonic tone poem “The Poem of Ecstasy.” (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Is The Ear the only person who finds it more like “The Poem of Agony”?

And then there are the late, virtuosic and pretentious piano sonatas called “White Mass” and “Black Mass” – favorites of the great Russian piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below) who, as a child played for Scriabin.

When it comes to the Russian school, The Ear far prefers the emotion in the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and even Peter Tchaikovsky.

Well, what can you do? Such is taste.

So today, The Ear wants to know: Are there famous composers or famous works that you just can’t stand and consider highly overrated?

Leave the name and the reason you hate it so much in the COMMENT section.

Here’s hoping for some interesting and surprising responses.

The Ear wants to hear.

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