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):

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/classical-music-madison-opera-offers-preview-events-leading-up-to-cavalleria-rusticana-and-i-pagliacci-on-nov-2-and-4/

https://www.madisonopera.org/tickets/

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: With much of Wisconsin underwater from historic flooding, Britten’s opera “Noah’s Flood” seems timely. Can you think of other works inspired by floods and natural disasters?

August 30, 2018
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Right now much of Wisconsin lies underwater.

This past week has seen record-setting rain and historic flooding along with high winds and tornadoes that have left many towns and counties declared official disasters.

Then yesterday, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency for the entire state. More rain and thunderstorms are predicted for all weekend and next week.

The flooding is not on the order of the deadly and destructive wildfires out west. But the situation seems nonetheless the kind of emergency or natural disaster that usually draws some kind of attention of the national media — on a smaller scale something like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria that devastated  respectively, New Orleans, Houston and Puerto Rico.  

But this time The Ear can’t recall seeing or hearing even mentions or 10-second spot reports about the flooding of a state capital on national news programs. Can you?

New programs always seem to focus more on weather stories when they occur on the coasts and in the south. And right now the media also appear preoccupied with offering ever more words about the deaths of Senator John McCain and singer Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul.”

But the situation got The Ear to thinking and searching.

Are there works of classical music inspired by flooding and other natural disasters?

And he doesn’t mean just music inspired by and celebrating calmer and less destructive water such as George Frideric Handel’s “Water Music” or Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony or Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Ebb and Flow” Music.

One important discovery that met the criterion was the children’s opera, “Noah’s Flood,” composed by British composer Benjamin Britten (below) in the wake of his own personal and home experience with floods – as you can see in the YouTube video below.

Can you think of other works composed in response to a natural disaster?

If so, in the comment section please leave the names of the work and composer and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: A long-lost American opera about Tabasco makes a fiery return to New Orleans. Are you burning to hear it?

January 29, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

It seems it’s time to revise the history of American opera.

That is due to the recent rediscovery of a lost 1894 opera about Tabasco (below, in photo by Tim Grosscup for New Orleans Opera) – that famous Southern hot sauce – that sheds a new light on that history.

The musical score, which had been lost for more than a century, was rediscovered in 2009 and has now received a fiery revival in its natural home — New Orleans, which also happens to have the oldest opera company in the United States.

The music was written by the American composer George Whitefield Chadwick (below). You can hear the Overture to the “burlesque opera” in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The libretto’s plot focuses on an Irish traveler who gets lost at sea and ends up as a chef in Morocco where the famous hot sauce pleases the Pasha who has captured him and so saves the traveler’s fate.

The opera was premiered in Boston, then went for a run on Broadway and toured to dozens of cities.

Of course, one still wonders if the opera will receive performance elsewhere these days. But that is another question for another day.

In the meantime, here is a fine story, with a sound sample, from National Public Radio (NPR) about the opera and its historical and artistic significance.

https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/01/25/580713942/tabasco-opera-makes-fiery-return-in-new-orleans


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