Verismo, Texas Style
Cavalleria Rusticana in San Antonio, November 2008
The Lone Star state of Texas is another world, as vast as many countries and with a culture that is, in some ways, equally as foreign. But, while waiting for the rare opportunity of hearing Andrea in a live opera performance that had brought us here, we thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of this south central Texas town, whose history stretches back to the founding of the first Spanish mission on the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua (San Antonio) June 13, 1691. The intimate link with this gentle, saintly, namesake who became an adopted son of Italy might make this city of the famous Alamo, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, the outsized flavor of Texas barbecue, and 10-gallon Stetson hats in every conceivable range of color and outlandish trim, seem a little bit more like home to our Italian tenor. In fact, the earliest simple settlement of San Antonio might well have resembled the Sicilian town that is the setting of the opera we had come to see, Cavalleria Rusticana. Sporadically through the first day there, as we reunited with friends and strolled the river walks and savored the history and warm sunshine of the city, a little happy dance played in my mind at the thought of the evening’s performance to come.
The San Antonio Opera was clearly bursting with excitement over this debut of Andrea Bocelli in their city at their grand circa-1926 auditorium. It was also the first live performance of this opera for Andrea. They did their best to reflect this enthusiasm with the glamorous "opening-night" type setting they created outside the theater to greet the arriving patrons. Multiple beacons of light danced high into the velvet-black night sky, bright floodlights of royal purple and white highlighted the gracefully repeated arches of the auditorium’s façade, red-carpeted pathways were rolled out for the VIP ticket holders, a symbolic pair of empty director’s chairs were perched on a small outdoor stage for the imagined "red-carpet celebrity moments." Lively musical excerpts from the opera company’s previous season were broadcast outside the theater, and inside the lobby live chamber music serenaded the bustling crowd, most of whom seemed to be intently jockeying for position to purchase wine or mixed drinks, which to my surprise were allowed into the theater. But after all, this was TEXAS, honey! People were caught up in the intoxication of the moment…literally and figuratively.
Once inside, the municipal auditorium seemed cavernous, seating 5,000. (Both nights of the performance had sold out quickly.) Yet Andrea sang unmiked and was easily heard throughout the evening. Certainly there was some loss of intimacy, and it was undeniably a challenge for Andrea to maintain the subtle and nuanced richness of his voice at the volume level required to carry throughout a house of that size (bigger than the Met and not designed for opera). But he carried it off with panache. This was brilliantly apparent in the evening’s final heart-wrenching aria "Mamma, quel vino e’ generoso."
But I have rushed ahead of myself. To begin at the beginning, Cavalleria Rusticana was Mascagni’s first opera, written for a competition when he was only 26 years old. The action spans the course of a single day—Easter Sunday, sunrise to sunset—and reflects the intense emotions that you might expect of a passionate young composer. The music ranges from sweeping grandeur, to lush lyricism, shimmering intimacy, emotional drama, religious solemnity, and throughout it is generously interspersed with the simple, lively, rhythmic pulse of peasant melody, reflecting the verismo, or realism of life, that he was a pioneer in depicting. It is an easy work to appreciate and love, and Andrea has commented more than once that he finds it beautiful from the first note to the last. Because all of the action occurs in one day in the single setting of the piazza of the small village and takes about 70 minutes to perform, it translates very well to the concert-opera format. Andrea navigated quite easily the narrow space allotted onstage in front of the orchestra for the acting that could be managed, which was actually a surprising amount.
The structure of the opera basically depicts four highly dramatic encounters among the four principal characters. Turridu, newly returned from a stint in the army; Lola, his treacherously seductive former lover; Santuzza, the woman he thought could help him quench the passionate love for Lola that still smoldered within him; his mamma, Lucia; and Lola’s betrayed and bitter husband, Alfio.
The dark-haired and fiery Chilean soprano Veronica Villarroel was a relentlessly passionate and convincing Santuzza and a thrilling vocal partner to Andrea. Her powerful voice with its distinctive timbre convincingly conveyed the vulnerability and despair of this woman and the utter loss of her abandonment and betrayal by the man she had trusted with her heart and soul.
Cindy Sadler, a graduate of the University of Texas, seemed the perfect embodiment of the strong Sicilian madre, Lucia, registering by turns an impressive range of emotions from haughty scorn and pity, through foreboding alarm, to utter despairing loss. Throughout, she was a stalwart and capable, if somewhat short, Mamma Lucia to her strapping 6’3" boy tenor! It was touching to see how deftly Andrea managed to bend with ease and natural tenderness to receive the parting kisses softly bestowed at his desperate request in the final aria. It was heart-rending in its urgency as she lovingly cupped his face within her hands to caress his cheek repeatedly with the reassuring "baci" to calm his desperation and his troubled soul.
The Uruguayan baritone, Marcello Guzzo, the strapping, cuckolded, peasant husband of the seductive Lola, competently captured the character of Alfio, progressing from a light-hearted and contented husband to a bitterly jealous and murderously enraged being who would demand his vengeance before the sun set. He is as much a victim of Lola’s treacherous jealousy as is Turiddu, and the intense encounter with Andrea in the final musical dialogue was a highlight of the performance.
Then there is Lola. Her part is small, but from her first moment onstage, Dana Beth Miller, made the most of her lush and mesmerizing mezzo, immediate in its impact, to compel revulsion for her flirtatious obsession and destructive jealousy that has wreaked so much havoc in the quiet village. It is clear from the first instant that she’s nothing but trouble!
The opera begins quietly with a softly tranquil orchestral strain and Andrea’s nearly immediate presence onstage with the haunting melody of the Siciliana. The offstage effect called for was nicely arranged in this case, with the tenor standing in spotlight to the side and behind the musicians and using a microphone to carry the sound because of the logistics of where he stood. There was, of course, instant applause at his presence, and he launched confidently and forcefully into the haunting aria that really initiates and frames the tragic course of the drama. The foreboding tone Andrea masterfully matched to the words revealed that his character, Turiddu, knew well the fateful choice he had made: "Blood may be spilled on your doorstep, but to die there is nothing to me."
The basic facts argue that Turiddu is a weak cad, a philanderer at the mercy of his emotions. But somehow, when Andrea inhabits a character, he always seems to find the humanity there. At a preconcert press conference, he had confided that he understood this man and his passions very well and "could forgive him." Indeed, when Andrea became the voice of Turiddu and invested the musical dialogue with his plaintive vulnerability, it was easier to understand the powerful emotions that had driven this man along the destructive and fatal course that unfolds in the short span from sunrise to sunset that is encompassed within Mascagni’s dramatic work.
After a lively aria that introduces us to the briefly carefree Alfio, who has just returned home from roving the countryside after a "business trip" as a "carter," we hear the first encounter between Mamma Lucia, who is heading for the Easter church service, and Santuzza, who hints at the sordid actions of Turiddu. This exchange is interrupted by the villagers, also gathering in the piazza for the service, who sing, in joyful celebration of Christ’s victory over death, this gloriously soaring and probably familiar choral piece in touching counterpoint to the utter despair and defeat felt by Santuzza, who nevertheless sorrowfully joins them in the beautifully transcendent theme. When the villagers have gone into church, she movingly summarizes the devastating background of the plot revealing to Lucia that her son is basically an unfaithful, weak-willed jerk. Villarroel’s voice was commanding throughout this technically demanding and profoundly compelling aria (you might remember similar vocal fireworks from the recording of Il Trovatore that she did with Andrea). Lucia is stunned by what Santuzza has revealed and goes off to church, leaving Santuzza (who cannot enter the sacred precinct because her "sinful relationship" has resulted in her excommunication from the church).
This is the point that Andrea makes his official onstage entrance, again greeted with immediate and enthusiastic applause. Santuzza boldly confronts him with the reality of his painful behavior toward her and he, clearly in major denial, visibly shrinks from facing it. Andrea’s subtle body language successfully portrays the ambivalence he feels at his lies, pacing and turning away with a frustrated slap at his thigh, and then becoming increasingly aggressive in rejection of Santuzza and the truth he is incapable of admitting…he roughly pushes her from him repeatedly. He denies her accusations, tells her to be quiet, that she is making him angry, he shouts for her to leave, he threatens that he is not a slave to her jealousy, all the while punctuating the action with musical phrases carefully shaped with emotional color that communicated the tragic immediacy of the words.
In the midst of this scene, Lola makes her entrance, throwing both Santuzza and Turiddu off balance for quite different reasons. Lola throws a few sharp-tongued zingers at both of them, expertly focused on pushing the most vulnerable emotional buttons of each. When she has finished, she self-righteously strolls into the church with a maddening, in-your-face, taunting strut. From this point, the exchange between Santuzza and Turiddu becomes hotly passionate and frenzied, she, desperately begging him to reconsider and return to their love, and he, building to a crescendo of rejection that ends with the musical equivalent of screaming at her in the climactic, dramatically delivered, coldly dismissive line "Dell’ira tua non mi curo!" ("I don’t give a damn for your anger"). Given the gentle-hearted, all-embracing, serenely accepting humanity of the soul he has revealed to us through the years, it is much to his credit that Andrea, at this moment, convincingly makes you shudder at the menacing chill of this deadly musical thrust at Santuzza that cuts her to the quick. In final bitter desperation, she curses his departing figure. And it is not surprising that when Alfio innocently and unexpectedly appears on the scene at this instant of her lowest ebb, she gives in to the vengeful temptation and plants the fatal seeds of the drama’s tragic end by bluntly revealing to Alfio that while he has been braving the wind and rain to earn a living for her, his wife has been "putting horns" on his head. Alfio swears he will have "vendetta" ("vengeance") before the sun sets.
Somewhat strangely at this point, one of the most beautiful musical passages in operadom provides a cooling off moment for all. The meditative Intermezzo flows over the audience with its healing, redemptive, achingly beautiful melody. We of course know it as the hauntingly lovely Sancta Maria that Andrea has sung so compellingly so many times in our memory in a prime example of the style that his hero Corelli once described as having "tears in his voice." I admit I regretted that we could only be granted the orchestral version, and not Andrea’s caressingly sweet vocal one.
But shortly after, as the folk leave the church service to gather in the piazza and begin the festa to celebrate the holy holiday, we are given the treat of the effervescent drinking song (my personal favorite) "Viva il vino spumeggiante." Andrea never fails to please with this lively aria that sparkles every bit as much as the foaming wine it praises. Andrea seems to be completely invested in the lyric, so winningly matched with the melody of this song, proclaiming that the joys of wine are truly something to be grateful for. He seemed vocally strong, open, and relaxed in his enjoyment of this performance, his voice lilting and jaunty in this briefly light-hearted moment. But the joy was about to quashed in the most brutal way. Enter Alfio, stage left. Turiddu, caught up in the physical and emotional intoxication of the lovely wine, offers a glass to him. But in no uncertain terms, Alfio soundly and insultingly refuses, stating that it would turn to poison in his stomach. Andrea reacts with astonishing ferocity. As he had done earlier in the dialogue with Santuzza, he hits the icy-cold tone that was perfectly suited to the recognition of Alfio’s strong insult with his response, "A piacer vostro" ("Just as you like"). What quickly ensues is a brief exchange between the two men that ends in the brutally startling (but deftly executed by Andrea) Sicilian equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet in challenge to a duel—Turiddu bites the ear of Alfio.
Left alone onstage to face the bitter reality of his fatally foolish actions, Andrea, as Turiddu, gave the performance of his life. "Mamma, quel vino e’ generoso," is among the handful of most famous arias in the tenor repertoire. Many of us have heard Andrea do it live in concert before and, of course, on the CD of Cavalleria Rusticana. But in this performance, he outdid himself, pouring intense emotion into each word, coloring each note to forge a potent blend of music and heart-piercing feeling that had a physical effect—strongly conveying the sickening sense of a man fatalistically sensing his doom and the despair of his oppressive loss. You could see that he was completely absorbed, body and soul, in the effort to palpably shape and translate the emotion into sound. It was a tour de force. When he finished, we were left in limp in exhaustion and stunned silence at the power of it. We watched, helplessly bereft, as Andrea quietly walked offstage to certain "death." To contemplate, even for a millisecond, the possibility of the actual loss of that beautiful soul to us was truly wrenching. The shattering scream announcing Turiddu’s murder that marks the opera’s end is truly chilling. It took a moment for us in the audience to regain our emotional equilibrium before bursting into appreciative and well-earned applause that extended unabated through a series of collective and then single curtain calls for the performers. Seventy minutes had just seemed like a lifetime—but it still wasn’t nearly enough.
Mulling over the gift of this performance, savoring the memory, I could not get the words of the man who had directed this concert out of my mind. At a preconcert press conference, Eugene Kohn eloquently articulated what we have all tried at one time or another to express. But it is particularly gratifying to hear it from one who has had a long collaboration with operatic stars of the caliber of Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti, and Placido Domingo. I share his words:
"…I have some experience with great tenors, and I’ve always been aware and in recognition of the importance of Bocelli’s voice. I think that what sets the great tenors in a class by themselves is a difficult to define quality, that the timbre or quality of the voice—the color of the individual’s voice—carries an emotional impact that moves people. There’s something of the joy in life and the pain of life, and the obstacles that [for example] the young Pavarotti or the young DeStefano had to overcome—winning battles, winning fights—that colors the development of the human vocal instrument in a way that no teaching can prepare it for, and no coaching can instill into it. And those very, very few chosen voices, which seem to have a knife-cutting edge that goes into the soul or the spirit of the listeners, is a very small group of people . . . But there is something in Andrea Bocelli’s voice that in any repertoire—and this is probably most important in the operatic repertoire because opera can be really boring if the voices aren’t good—there is something about this gentleman’s voice which cuts to the soul and gets under the skin of listeners in the audience…"
Indeed there is. Thank you for these perfect words, Maestro Kohn. E grazie per la gioia della tua voce e della tua musica, Andrea.
Cavalleria Rusticana postscript: The second nite!
Our friends left San Antonio to join family and other friends
for Thanksgiving celebrations. Opening night had been such a big
success that it seemed superfluous to look for something different in
the second night’s offering of the same program. But, there were
moments to savor---we were thrilled we stayed.
For Bocelli fans, the evening never really starts until Andrea
makes his entrance! But, both nights there was also a first half
program of orchestral music, mostly overtures, from six operas,
conducted by Maestro Eugene Kohn. William Tell, Il Trovatore, Samson et
Dalila, Carmen, Barber of Seville, and the Triumphal March from Aida.
The Samson et Dalila offering was an aria, Mon Coeurs’ Ouvra ta Voix,
sung by Dana Beth Miller, whose rich voice later graced the role of Lola
in the opera. The intermission following this half of the program,
served to whet the appetite for the opera which would begin when we
returned to our seats!
The first night we were seated in the orchestra section with
close-up advantage visually and aurally. On the second night our
seats had a different vantage point….center balcony. It begins quite
far back from the stage. The listening quality was equal to the first
night, or possibly more brilliant! The elevated view was good too,
although I was grateful for the screen positioned above the stage
because we were too far back to be able to see faces. The performance of
the music was parallel in quality to the first night. Our
advantage came in seeing the entire opera unfold again which serves to
reinforce impressions anchored in one’s memory.
A positive audience reaction tonight was even more adoring than
the previous night. I would not have been surprised if the roof
flew off the building, such was the din that built up at the end. During
curtain calls the tumult of applause and vocal appreciation kept topping
like waves of the ocean. This audience would not be quelled; they
simply could not get enough of Andrea Bocelli. Not surprising, he
smiled and bowed with the others as a man from the back ran up to the
stage to throw handful after handful of bright red rose petals on
Andrea, until the stage was carpeted in red petals. It was quite a
colorful display to see unfold. Because the opera was over, people
had come forward to shoot photos up close. More and more
approached, until they were standing several deep. From the
balcony it looked like a mosh pit of fans! A crew pushed a grand
piano out from the wings and fans were screaming as Andrea walked over
to it and took his place at the keyboard.
I witnessed an interesting change in Andrea’s demeanor now…something
I had never seen happen before. Turiddu is a very serious role to be
sure, and Andrea stayed in character even when taking bows. But
now his body and face---everything about him changed. Warmth and
charisma emerged full force. The BIG warm smile and a few waves to
the audience made it Andrea we were now seeing…not Turiddu. I giggled
a bit to see the transformation; the showman made it a party!
After two choruses of Ave Maria, sung and played beautifully, of course
sans microphone, Andrea arose to join the rest of the cast for another
turn at bowing. Now the others left as Andrea and Veronica
Villarroel stood together. The orchestra, still in place began
soft strains of La Boheme’s O soave fanciulla and we realized we
were in for such a wonderful final treat. Veronica has a gorgeous
voice and these two in duet, not only sang it, but took on the
characters of Rodolfo and Mimi, to act out the love song which ended
dreamily as they slowly walked off on the final notes of Amor.
This was the best I have ever heard it done! I love hearing his
voice live, unmiked, and a natural force.
Oh my, what a night. Walking out took a while with
such a big crowd, and a band in the lobby made it more pleasant by
playing wonderful tunes for the exiting patrons.
Outside the night was turning chilly and we were unable to snag
a cab, when we spotted a one-horse buggy for hire, adorned with lights
too. This mode became the perfect ending to our mini-stay in
this city that had been warm hosts to us all.
By Carolyn Parsons