CavalleriaPietro Mascagni - Cavalleria Rusticana

Antiche Terme Romana, Baia 2007 | Zhang Jiemin, Maurizio Scaparro, Ildiko Komlosi, Sing Kyu Park, Cinzia De Mola, Marco di Felice, Barbara Di Castri | Arthaus Musik

You would of course usually expect to see a performance of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana paired with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in the popular Cav/Pag double bill of one-act operas, but it’s good once in a while to have the opportunity to consider these works on their own terms. Particularly, as far as I’m concerned, the musically and dramatically stronger of the two works, Cavalleria Rusticana (”Rustic Chivalry”), one of the most beautifully melodic opera works ever composed, and it’s even more interesting to consider it on its own in this particular open-air setting at the Antiche Terme Romana, the ancient Roman hot baths in Baia in 2007.

Late on what looks like a balmy summer’s evening, this authentically Italian Mediterranean location of seismic activity forms an impressive natural backdrop for the volcanic passions that erupt in the Sicilian village setting of Mascagni’s tense rural melodrama. The strengths of the work reside not just in the melodic invention of the work, but in how it is tied through its folk rhythms, religious processional music and heartfelt emotions to the simplicity of the beliefs and passions of ordinary people in a rural location. Underpinning the score, with its mounting tension masterfully rising to the surface, is the suggestion of a dark and tragic undercurrent that reflects not just the dramatic developments, but the nature of where those conflicts arise in the conflicts between human passions, where male pride and female jealousy run up against religious beliefs, tradition and family honour.

Progressing almost in real-time and played out significantly on Easter outside a church and in a square in front of the whole village community, it’s the concision of the concentrated short work that benefits the intensity of its simple, direct storyline. That aspect of the action taking place under the watchful eyes of the community, the chorus representing not just the villagers but, as the choir of the Easter procession, the religious community that the pregnant peasant girl Santuzza is excluded from, is certainly emphasised in the open-air location at Baia. It’s the rejection of her lover Turridu however that stings even more deeply, particularly as he has been seen with his Lola, the girl he once loved who is now married to Alfio. It doesn’t take much more than insinuation for this situation of jealousy and pride for this to spill over into that dark, violent and tragic conclusion that has been simmering there in Mascagni’s brooding, melancholic score.

Although it’s not an ideal place to stage the work and it does present some problems, director Maurizio Scaparro makes the most of the open-air location to bring all these elements to the fore in the production design that places the orchestra right at the very heart of the performance. There is minimal use of props and settings - everything that is required is supplied by the location and the resonances of its historical and geological background. It’s enclosed enough to emphasise that hothouse sense of community and characters wrapped up in their own intense feelings, yet open enough to suggest that it takes place in that all-important verismo aspect of the real-world and ordinary people. If the singing then is not exceptional in this production, it’s strong enough in the context and it still gets across all the emotional and dramatic requirements of the piece, hitting those key moments with the necessary forcefulness.

If the acoustics of the outdoor location don’t benefit the singers the way that a custom-built theatre might, requiring them to use discreet microphones and perhaps project a little bit more than necessary, it seems to work better for the orchestra nestled basin-like within the action. Zhang Jiemin conducts the orchestra of the Teatro di San Carlo of Naples through a powerful performance of the opera that draws out all the joy, tragedy, passion and tension out of the work. It comes across particularly well in the DTS 5.1 audio track which has a punchy low-frequency range and cymbal crashes that lend full emphasis to those key scenes. PCM stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are also included. The 16:9 widescreen image looks fine on the dual-layer DVD9 disc and the DVD is Region 0, NTSC. Subtitles are English, German, French, Spanish and Italian. The DVD includes a 30-minute documentary that is part tour guide to the region and its history, but also gives a good account of the production through rehearsal footage and interviews, mainly with director Maurizio Scaparro.