It’s the stuff (not only) opera myths are made of: A young composer, college dropout and assistant conductor at an Italian provincial theater wins an opera competition. The premiere in the capital Rome made him famous overnight. The work immediately entered the canon played to this day and remained so popular that a hundred years later Francis Ford Coppola performed the finale of “The Godfather III” in a performance of “Cavalleria rusticana”. After all, the godfathers of the Mafia come from a place where Pietro Mascagni set his opera in 1890: an archaic Sicilian village shaped by Catholicism and a strict code of honor. The ex- Soldier Turiddu has dishonored the farmer’s wife Santuzza there with an illegitimate relationship and is now turtelling again with his ex-lover Lola, who is now married to the carter Alfio.When the people pour out of the fair on the village square on Easter Sunday, Turiddu challenges Alfio to a duel with the knife – and dies.
In the concert performance of the Baden-Baden Autumn Festival, Turiddu is an Italian tenor as it is written in books: Giorgio Berrugi sounds juicy sanguine, exudes lush melt, and at the same time phrases with elegance. Domen Križaj also fulfills expectations as Alfio, letting a round, virile baritone be heard. Only the casting of the Santuzza contradicts everything that is known about this opera: Carolina López Morena is not a mezzo-soprano or a heavy soprano with rich depth, but sings the role with a bright, radiant, softly flowing high note. Which means in the opera’s voice typology: a young woman is standing on the stage here, not a large-caliber heroine.
The singer wanted her part to be lower, the tenor grumbled too, and the chorus was simply miserable
It is made possible by Thomas Hengelbrock, one of the most experienced conductors of historical performance practice, who, with his Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, is performing the “Cavalleria Rusticana” for the first time as it was actually composed. Because myths are nice, but rarely completely true: it was not only the competition jury that asked Mascagni at the time to further shorten his opera, which was already only one and a half hours long – it was a competition for one-act plays. At the premiere he also had to experience what young composers like to do: the singer of Santuzza demanded that her role be lowered, the tenor also wanted changes, and the chorus was simply miserable. Because he was unable to sing many passages that were avant-garde in terms of harmony and voice leading, Mascagni had to make cuts. Fifty years later, the composer, now quite conservative, gave his final blessing to the resulting but ultimately mutilated version, conducting it himself in two recordings (which remain fascinating to this day).
Hengelbrock has now not only studied the autograph, but was also able to fall back on research results from the Bärenreiter publishing house, which is currently working together with the original Italian publisher on the first historical-critical edition of the work. In the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, for example, there is no completely different piece to be experienced, but it is clearly weighted differently: the drinking chorus in the second part in particular is much more extensive and thus forms a real counterweight to the (also longer) Easter jubilee in the first. The Balthasar Neumann Choir sings with impressive intonation, slim, but with the ability to explode. The actually wild chromaticism of the drinking song becomes a bacchanalian frenzy: Catholic sensuality responds to Catholic worship (which Hengelbrock emphasizes by prefixing the performance with the Credo from the young Giacomo Puccini’s “Messa di Gloria” ten years earlier).
The other decisive point is the cast of Santuzza: with a higher soprano, she and her rival Lola become real opponents, because Mascagni actually composed Lola for a lighter mezzo-soprano (in Baden-Baden: Eva Zaïcik). Especially since Hengelbrock has made a real discovery with the young Carolina López Moreno. The soprano, who was born in Germany but has so far been little known in this country, definitely has dramatic potential, cleverly integrates the depth, but above all convinces with her many internalized colors, which are reduced to the piano – which makes the role seem more touching. The tenor may also die in the end: it is the life of a young woman that actually ends prematurely here.
A serene southern sky now seems to be hovering over the Opera
The youthful moment is reinforced by the original sound practice of the Balthasar Neumann Orchestra, in which the strings, also unfamiliar with this repertoire, play gut strings. Because the violins don’t flood everything with constant vibrato, the basic sound is more delicate, more chaste, so to speak. At the same time, it leaves more room for the deep strings and wind instruments, which edgily underline the dramatic effects. Hengelbrock contrasts the sound characters sharply: a cheerful, southern sky seems to hover over the opera, lightly and casually poetically. But in the depths of this village simmers an equally casual, all the more cruel tragedy.
“What you theater people call your tradition is your laziness and sloppiness,” Gustav Mahler once swore. Since then, it has become common practice for many works to tend to be played in the original version. When the new edition of “Cavalleria rusticana” is published next year by Bärenreiter-Verlag, as announced, it is to be hoped that everything that Mascagni composed can finally be read in it. And the opera houses integrate the hitherto unknown material into their scenic performances as quickly as possible.