Schenectady Symphony Orchestra in Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
HOW MUCH: $7.50, $5, free for children seven and under
MORE INFO: 346-6204, 372-2500 or www.schenectadysymphony.org
As part of the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary, it will present a concert version of Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” on Sunday at Proctors.
“It’s a no-brainer to do,” said conductor Charles Schneider. “The length is right, it’s in a wonderful style and the music is gorgeous.”
Schneider did the 80-minute opera two years ago with the Oneonta Symphony Orchestra and will use the same cast. They are soprano Eunjoo Lee as Santuzza, tenor Dinyar Vania as Turridu, baritone Ed Huls as Alfio, soprano Colby Thomas as Lola and mezzo-soprano Christine Reimer as Mama Lucia.
The 53-voice Catskill Choral Society, directed by Tim Newton, and the 110-voice University Chorale of the University at Albany, directed by David Griggs-Janower, will provide the chorus. There will be no props, sets or costumes. The opera will be sung in Italian.
The opera has been a favorite of opera houses worldwide since it premiered in 1890. The Metropolitan Opera has presented it 687 times. In 1888, Mascagni, a struggling 25-year-old music teacher from Cerignola, heard that the Rome music publisher Sonzogno was offering a prize for the best one-act opera. Hoping to secure much-needed funds and inspired by the libretto written by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci from a short story by Giovanni Verga, Mascagni presented his opera to the judges in 1890 and won the prize. Its production catapulted Mascagni from obscurity to international fame and fortune overnight. Nothing else he subsequently wrote ever came close to this success.
What contributed to its success is that it was one of the first, if not the best, of what is called the verismo style — a realistic slice-of-life of the conflicts of the average man rather than those of royalty or fantasy. The opera’s title means rustic chivalry but the grim story is about illicit love and revenge.
The opera opens on Easter morning in a small village in Sicily. Turridu, a young soldier, whose mother, Mama Lucia, keeps a wine shop in the village square, returns from serving in the army. He discovers that Lola, who had been his betrothed before he left, is now married to Alfio. To console himself, he seduces Santuzza, who becomes pregnant. But Lola beckons and Turridu abandons Santuzza. Alfio learns the truth from Santuzza.
After the Easter services as the villagers are gathered outside of Lucia’s wine shop, Alfio accosts Turridu. Then, according traditional Sicilian custom, Turridu bites Alfio’s ear: a duel to the death. Too late, Turridu realizes he has done wrong to the women in his life. He entreats his mother to take care of Santuzza and goes to meet his death.
Because of the work’s great theatricality, the singers must have big voices with strong dramatic qualities, Schneider said. Before he presented the opera in Oneonta, he auditioned several singers in New York City.
“Santuzza is hard to cast. She must be a dramatic soprano with a really, really, good low and middle register — like a Maria Callas,” he said. “The tenor, Turridu, must also be dramatic. Heavier than Rodolfo in ‘La Boheme’ — more like Cavaradossi in ‘Tosca.’ The voice needs more ping — like a Placido Domingo. That kind of voice is hard to come by unless you want to pay $80,000 a performance.”
The smaller roles Schneider filled more easily. He knew Thomas because she teaches voice at SUNY-Oneonta and had sung “Phantom of the Opera” for 10 years in Europe; he had worked with Reimer. And Huls, who is married to Lee and accompanied her to rehearsals, turned out to have a voice perfect for his role, he said.
Schneider has much opera experience. He played in pit orchestras as a violinist during college. When he took up the baton in the late 1960s, he conducted Baltimore Opera; the 1968 Lincoln Center production of “West Side Story” for Leonard Bernstein’s 50th birthday at the request of Bernstein; the 1973 American premiere of Kurt Weill’s “Mahagonny” at San Francisco Opera; and was a founding member of Glimmerglass Opera, where, between 1975 and 1988 he conducted all the operas, including five productions of “Cavalleria Rusticana.”
His role with the SSO has greater challenges beyond pacing the show, shaping the phrases and keeping the balances, he said. There are stylistic things that an opera orchestra automatically knows and that he must teach, such as that some bars of music have unwritten major retards with some slower beats but the other beats are in a regular tempo. Most of all, the musicians must keep an eagle eye on Schneider. If a singer holds a note longer, then the orchestra must also.
This production is a concert version, so the chorus will be behind the orchestra and the singers will be to Schneider’s right near the chorus, where he can have excellent eye contact with them, he said. It helps that the cast is the same, he said, because he knows what they’ll do and where they’ll breathe.
But the orchestra parts are more difficult than the chorus parts, despite that the chorus has to sing in Italian, he said.
“The keys are odd. For instance, in the last aria, Turridu sings in A-flat minor, and it’s very fast. When was the last time you played anything in that key?” he said laughing.
“And then, there’s a huge C-major chord that the chorus must pull out of the air and the music runs to the end descending into syncopated F-minor chords. That’s it. The curtain falls. It’s an abrupt ending.”
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