Boston Lyric Opera’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” is a triumph

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“Cavalleria rusticana” was a success from the start: by the time of Mascagni’s death in 1945, it had been performed over 14,000 times in Italy alone. The Metropolitan Opera in New York has given him more than 700 performances. A one-act piece of only 70 minutes, “Cavalleria” is often part of a double program with “Pagliacci” by Ruggero Leoncavallo. Here it’s all by itself, but Mascagni’s score is so rich, and the script is so dramatic, 70 minutes feels like a full evening.

And on Friday there was a bonus: baritone Javier Arrey opened the evening by singing the prologue to “Pagliacci”, in which Tonio invites the audience to enjoy the next show. Arrey was so bossy, so welcoming, so sincere, it seemed like the show could hardly fail. And it is not.

The action of “Cavalleria rusticana” is compressed into a single Easter Sunday in a Sicilian village. We first hear Turiddu (Adam Diegel) singing an aubade to a woman who we imagine to be his sweetheart, Lola (Chelsea Basler); he says that Heaven will not be Heaven if it is not there. But like the other characters – Turiddu’s mother, Lucia (Nina Yoshida Nelsen); the young woman Santuzza (Michelle Johnson); the carter Alfio (Arrey) – appear in the village square, we realize that it will not be a blessed Easter. Turiddu, we learn, was engaged to Lola, but then he enlisted, and by the time he returned, Lola had married Alfio. Frustrated, Turiddu seduced Santuzza and even proposed, but that made Lola jealous, and now Turiddu has deserted Santuzza and moved closer to Lola. Santuzza begs him; when he rejects her, she tells Alfio that Lola is unfaithful. Alfio challenges Turiddu to a duel; Turiddu, anticipating his fate, admits his guilt, asks Lucia to take care of Santuzza and leaves to die.

At the Leader Bank Pavilion, the opera is sung in Italian; two video screens flanking the stage provide a view of the action as well as English subtitles. The camera work is impeccable; the captions are easy to read, accurate in translation and synchronized. The BLO Orchestra is on stage, with the BLO Choir behind the stage on the right; David Angus directs from a podium on the left. Angus brings cadence and rhythm to the opening bittersweet siciliana and the famous Intermezzo; the chorus is radiant in the hymn “Regina Coeli”.

The main singers, at the bottom of the stage, are separated from the orchestra by a row of yellow wooden chairs and a bouquet of flowers which constitute the “set”; it doesn’t sound like much, but director Giselle Ty makes imaginative use of these flowers and chairs. Complementing the action, a trio of dancers – Victoria Awkward, Michayla Kelly, Marissa Molinar – who function as villagers, making up for the absence of the choir from the play area due to COVID.

The vocals are good, especially from Diegel and Arrey, big and easy and full of character. Johnson is an intense Santuzza; this is the most difficult role, and the sound recording can take away some nuances. She is certainly glorious in the “Regina Coeli”. Everyone acts is even better. Don’t miss the footage where Lola sarcastically says it’s a pity that the “sinner” Santuzza can’t go to Easter Mass and Santuzza coldly replies that “God sees everything” (i.e. adultery of Lola), while Turiddu looks like I would like to disappear. In the end, Turiddu goes from comedic pleasure (his post-mass drinking bout) to tragic realization (his life is over) in the blink of an eye.

The temperature on Friday night stood at a comfortable 63, winds were negligible, and aircraft noise barely registered against the virtues of production. No need for orange trees or singing larks for this exceptional “Cavalleria rusticana”.

CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA

Music by Pietro Mascagni. Libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci. Directed by Giselle Ty. Together, Julia Noulin-Mérat. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Lighting, Molly Tiede. Musical direction, David Angus. Presented by the Boston Lyric Opera. At the Leader Bank Pavilion, Friday October 1. Remaining performance: October 3. Tickets: $ 10 to $ 180. 617-542-4912, www.blo.org

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at [email protected].


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