Based upon true stories, operas still sizzle today

October 15, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" ("Rustic Chivalry") won first prize in an Italian publisher's competition and was produced with great eclat in Rome on May 17, 1890. It is generally credited with launching the vogue for operatic verismo (truth), which evolved in the last decade of the 19th century as a reaction to conventional Romantic operas, primarily those of Verdi.

In its depiction of violent actions and passions, it was no different from any other operatic style; what distinguished it was its contemporary settings and lower-class subjects.

"Cavalleria" is based on an actual event in Sicily. A young villager (Turiddu) is emotionally torn between his attachment to a decent woman (Santuzza), who is pregnant with his child, and his passion for Lola, who is a tramp but who is also married. The direct and impassioned music and the violence of Turiddu's death -- Lola's jealous husband, Alfio, guts him with a knife -- created the rage for verismatic opera in Italy.

Ruggerio Leoncavallo made a deliberate attempt to emulate Mascagni's success in his own "Pagliacci" ("Clowns"), which was first performed in Milan about two years later. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

The story, like that of "Cavalleria," is based on an actual event: An actor had killed his wife after a theatrical performance in which they had both taken part. (Leoncavallo's father was the judge in the murder trial.)

The opera is set as a play within a play: a group of traveling actors performs in a booth in the center of the stage. The cast of characters is that of the traditional commedia dell'arte. Just before the curtain rises, the clown (Canio) learns that his wife (Nedda), who is Columbine in the play within a play, has a lover (Silvio).

As the play progresses, he begins to identify himself with the character of the drama. He demands the name of the lover. Horrified by the reality of his actions, she refuses, and he stabs her. Silvio rushes in to try to save her, and is killed in turn. Canio then turns to the shocked spectators, and cries, "La Commedia e finita."

Opera

What: "Pagliacci" and "Cavalleria Rusticana"

Where: The Lyric Opera House

When: Oct. 15 (7: 30 p.m.); Oct. 17 (8: 15 p.m.); Oct. 18 (3 p.m.); Oct. 21 (7: 30 p.m.); Oct. 23 (8: 15 p.m.); Oct. 25 (3 p.m.)

Tickets: $23-$104

` Call: 410-727-6000

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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