Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Real Housewives of Verismo Opera

I'm always surprised when a term which has been dormant for many years re-enters the vernacular with a vengeance. Thanks in large part to the rise of the Alt-right, a word first introduced in 1250 has come roaring back to life and is now being used to demean and belittle political targets. According to Wikipedia:
“A cuckold is the husband of an adulterous wife. The word derives from the cuckoo bird, alluding to its habit of laying its eggs in other birds' nests. The association is common in medieval folklore, literature, and iconography. In evolutionary biology, the term is also applied to males who are unwittingly investing parental effort in offspring that are not genetically their own. One often-overlooked subtlety of the word is that it implies that the husband is deceived, that he is unaware of his wife's unfaithfulness and may not know until the arrival or growth of a child plainly not his (as with cuckoo birds).”
When used in a pejorative sense, cuckold is intended to emasculate someone by making him appear naive, gullible, and the weaker of the sexes. It also raises questions about the efficacy of monogamy and creates doubt about the power of fidelity to fortify the sanctity of marriage.

When men stray outside their connubial vows, their actions are often construed as "playing the field" or "sowing one's wild oats." Women victimized by their husbands' infidelity may be labeled as manipulative and hysterical. Sadly, the emotional and psychological damage such betrayals do to women is often trivialized in societies that draw strong links between gender roles, libido, and machismo.

When the shoe's on the other foot, many men simply can't take their humiliation in stride. Some sulk, others resort to their default problem-solving tool: violence. In Rodgers and Hammerstein's groundbreaking 1943 musical (Oklahoma!), the character of Ado Annie struck a blow for sexual parity. The following clips show the original Ado Annie (Celeste Holm) singing "I Cain't Say No" and a scene from the Royal National Theatre's 1998 production in which Will Parker (Jimmy Johnston) and Ado Annie (Vicki Simon) spar over whether their love can survive an "All Er Nuthin'" kind of relationship.

* * * * * * * * *
The opening night of the San Francisco Opera's 2018 fall season was devoted to two one-act operas which have long been audience favorites. Over the years, the pairing of Cavalleria Rusticana with Pagliacci has been so successful at the box office that it's rare to see one opera performed without the other.

Nevertheless, in 1979 at the Tulsa Opera I attended two performances of Jules Massenet's 1894 rarity, La Navarraise, on a double bill with Pagliacci. And without doubt, the most thrilling performance of Pagliacci I ever witnessed was in 1983 at the Houston Grand Opera (where it was paired with Ferrucio Busoni's rarely-performed Arlecchino). That performance featured Matteo Manuguerra as Tonio, Diana Soviero as Nedda, and a hair-raising portrayal of a crazed Canio by Jon Vickers which left some members of the audience wondering if it was safe to leave the theatre and walk to their cars. Writing in Texas Monthly, W. L. Taitte raved:
Pagliacci was one of those theatrical experiences that come only a few times in one’s life. Conductor Hal France (a very young home-grown Houston Opera Studio product who went through college on a football scholarship) found drama in every measure of a score I had thought could only be boring. All the singers sang like gods and acted like individualized, very real human beings. Vickers’ personal intensity made for a scary hour and a half; when he pulled out his knife in his first aria of warning, he looked like a man who would really use it. Manuguerra fitted Ponnelle’s conception of a grungy Pagliacci perfectly; with his saggy body and cretin face, he lurched through the opera like an aging gorilla in overalls.”
“Soviero embodied the sexiness of the production. When she and up-and-coming baritone J. Patrick Raftery provided a reason for her husband’s jealousy, they climbed into the cab of the truck and closed the door on their lovemaking. In Ponnelle’s Pagliacci, Vickers’ mad rage was comprehensible, almost reasonable. The opera -- any opera -- could not have been better performed. The usually phlegmatic Houston audience caught on and went wild. Even with the best planning in the world, you get a product like the Houston Pagliacci only once in a hundred, maybe once in a thousand times. That’s when singers’ opera and directors’ opera come together, start a chain reaction, and explode into the total theatre Wagner thought all opera should be.”
In checking my records, I discovered that the last time I saw fully-staged productions of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci on the same bill was in June 1986 at the San Francisco Opera. While the beloved Cav/Pag pairing is usually trumpeted as an evening filled with familiar tunes, blazing passions, and a grotesque, vindictive clown, I can't remember ever seeing marketing materials that enticed audiences to experience a shocking evening of "Cucks Gone Wild!"

Laura Krumm (Lola), Roberto Aronica (Turridu), and Ekaterina
Semenchuk (Santuzza) in a scene from Cavalleria Rusticana
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

* * * * * * * * *
One often hears the term "muscle memory" used with regard to someone performing an act they haven't done in a long time. Athletes and performers will occasionally recall moments when their minds seemed to go blank but their bodies dutifully repeated well-rehearsed motions as if by rote. As I sat in the audience at the War Memorial Opera House watching Cavalleria Rusticana, my mind was suddenly jolted with a musical memory from more than half a century ago. I had completely forgotten that, back when I was singing in Midwood High School's mixed chorus, we spent a lot of time learning the offstage chorus from Mascagni's opera!

The San Francisco Opera's new production of Cav/Pag has been designed and directed by former tenor turned director, José Cura. Originally created in 2007 for Belgium's Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, the production was inspired by Cura's initial re-imagining of Pagliacci for the Croation National Theatre in Rijeka. Subsequently staged at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Cura has relocated the action to La Boca (a working-class barrio in Buenos Aires that was settled by Italian immigrants in the 1920s and is now known for its tango dancing).

José Cura's unit set for Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci
(Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Cura incorporates the two operas' composers (Mascagni and Leoncavallo) into minor characters onstage and, through a combination of pantomime and clever costuming, creates a sense of continuity within a small community. While La Boca's colorful row houses add flavor to Cura's unit set (with lighting designed by Olivier Wéry and Justin A. Partier), this production has the smallest church I've ever seen onstage during Cavalleria Rusticana (many productions use a large staircase heading to the church's entrance for dramatic effect).

In Cura's staging, the famous Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana is used for a slow tango (choreographed by Lawrence Pech) performed by Alexandra FitzGibbon and Jekyns Pelaez as character doubles for Lola and Turiddu. Think of it as Laurie's dream ballet from Oklahoma! reinterpreted as the cuckolded Alfio's nightmare in which he dreams of a tryst between his wife, Lola, and Santuzza's lover, Turiddu. Or, if you prefer, call it "Agnes DeMille Goes Down Argentine Way."

Dancers Alexandra FitzGibbon and Jekyns Pelaez act out Alfio's
nightmare in Cavalleria Rusticana (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In this production, numerous touches hint at how the lives of the villagers continue over time within the microcosm known as La Boca.
  • The village beggar has some minor bits of stage business in each act (as do the priest, church personnel, and tavern staff).
  • Baritone Dimitri Platanias doubles as the cuckolded Alfio in Cavalleria and the vengeful Tonio in Pagliacci.
  • Whereas, in many productions, Santuzza's reluctance to enter the church may appear confusing, a Supertitle in which she tells Mamma Lucia (Jill Grove) "I've been excommunicated" goes a long way toward clarifying her predicament.
Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza) in a scene from
Cavalleria Rusticana (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
  • The jilted Santuzza (Ekaterina Semenchuk) appears in Act I dressed in shades of green, but returns in Act II clad in black, still mourning Turridu, and looking extremely pregnant (a black widow swollen with a growing reminder of her slain lover).
  • Casting Silvio (David Pershall) as a handsome, ingratiating young waiter in Mamma Lucia's establishment helps to build curiosity about him which makes him a more sympathetic character in Pagliacci.
David Pershall as Silvio in Pagliacci (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

In his director's note, Cura explains that:
"In principle, the plots of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana are fairly similar to one another: the illicit relations of a married woman trigger the jealousy of a betrayed husband. But the relevance of Canio’s character to today is overwhelming: an artist in decline, crushed by life and alcohol. Never before today have we seen so much talent thrown away once its 'novelty' has worn off: actors who fall from grace after two films, or worse, giants of the stage and screen being relegated to play bit parts so they can keep food on their tables (effectively becoming background decoration to the briefly shining 'star of the moment'). The list of victims is tremendously long and not only includes actors but also singers thrown into dizzyingly fast-moving careers without preparation and athletes who, under the pressure to win, resort to doping."
Amitai Pati (Beppe) and Marco Berti (Canio) in
a scene from Pagliacci (Photo by: Cory Weaver)
"The Prologue remains one of the most touching moments of this production for me, its words heard and felt only by the beggar and the paperboy. The use of these characters to narrate a united story animates an essential part of the staging: the presence of the two casts during both operas. With the choice of both operas sharing the same set, the challenge was to establish a socially structured town with its priest, mayor, bartender, barber, grocer, children, etc. So, we see Nedda and the clowns posting the company poster at the beginning of Cavalleria, we see Santuzza sporting her seven-month belly in Pagliacci, as well as Mamma Lucia still managing her tavern, assisted by her waiter, Silvio. But my favorite moment remains the ending: hearing Lucia (almost an 'oracle' in her own right) shouting 'La commedia è finita.' It is not just the voice of an old woman, but the voice of Earth, the voice of creation, shouting 'Basta!' ('Enough!') to the entire world."
Alfio's wife, Lola (Laura Krumm) looks down from her window
in a scene from Cavalleria Rusticana (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

With costumes designed by Fernand Ruiz, Jose Maria Condemi directed this revival of Cura's production with conductor Daniele Callegari on the podium. While Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza), Dimitri Platanias (Alfio/Tonio), and Marco Berti (Canio) brought the necessary vocal heft to their characters, I was pleasantly surprised by the sweetness in the sounds produced by Roberto Aronica as Turridu, David Pershall as Silvio, and Laura Krumm as Lola. Lianna Haroutounian struck me as a surprisingly bland Nedda.

Amitai Pati (Beppe), Lianna Haroutounian (Nedda), and Dimitri
Platanias (Tonio) in a scene from Pagliacci (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

My one criticism of Cura's production has to do with the costume he created for Canio (a role he sang during his career). The character is the kind of actor-manager who used to tour with a small troupe (and also inspired Ronald Harwood's play, The Dresser). In many productions of Pagliacci, Canio is initially seen in street clothes, wearing little or no stage makeup. This helps to communicate his basic humanity and salesmanship to the audience. The tenor's big aria ("Vesti la giubba") is often staged as a broken-hearted Canio looks at his reflection in a mirror and applies his makeup before stepping into his clown costume and going onstage to confront his cheating wife, Nedda, and seek revenge upon her lover (Silvio).

In Cura's staging, when Canio arrives in town, he is already wearing his clown's traditional whiteface makeup. In addition, he is wearing a white mask over the top half of his face which (though it might signify that he feels trapped inside his commedia dell'arte identity as Pulcinella) prevents the tenor from connecting with the townspeople and the audience. Although "Vesti la giubba" is sung while Canio is seated at a table with Mamma Lucia, the moment seems bloodless and mechanical rather than tragic and/or pathetic. Here's the trailer: