Cavalleria Rusticana: Easter in Rome

“There is no disputing taste,” “fashions change,” “to each his own,” and “vive la difference.” Certain pieces come in and out of the classical music repertory, while others never get a foothold; still others seem omnipresent. Classical music institutions today have to grapple with balancing repertory over the course of years, to make sure everything that must be played is played; new music that stimulates the muse of our most creative composers is given a hearing; that neglected or unknown works from the past are heard.

I have spent the last ten days in one of the cities I love the most: Rome. I have been rehearsing and conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, one of Italy’s leading cultural institutions since its inception in 1908. I conducted three concert performances of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry” is the literal translation of its ironic title), an opera that has enjoyed international success since its premiere, in Rome, in 1890. One of the world’s most popular operas (it ranks as the tenth most-performed work at the Metropolitan Opera), it is loved or scorned by musicians and music lovers; on both sides, many are vocal, few are neutral. It is performed so often that its image, as opposed to its substance, has degenerated in the eyes of many. It is a work that suffers from overexposure, under-rehearsal and performances of dubious taste. It has mostly been offered as the first half of “Cav and Pag,” a marriage that has endured, for better and for worse, since the first decade of the bride’s and groom’s appearances. Though a highly theatrical work, the music of Cavalleria stands firmly by itself, as I think was demonstrated this past week. 

One might ask why someone would want to perform this supposedly hackneyed opera for an audience that knows it so well and probably has heard it dozens of times? I have avoided conducting it for exactly thirty years (since leading a series of performances at Covent Garden) because I was not able to pull together all the elements—cast, orchestra, chorus and sufficient rehearsal time. The added prospect of collaborating with such an outstanding chorus and symphony orchestra also appealed to me. 

It turned out to be sort of a premiere. This great Italian orchestra had never played Cavalleria in public. Its last, and only, contact with the work was more than half a century ago, in 1960! That recording, conducted by Tullio Serafin, and featuring Giulietta Simionato, Mario de Monaco, and Cornell MacNeil, is now historic. But the link with the composer and the city was evident last week. Some nine thousand Romans came to hear the performances, among them Pietro Mascagni (a great-great-grandson) and Domenico Mascagni (a great-grandson of the composer). Seeing them, the distinction between past and present seemed to dissolve for a moment. 

The performances were extremely gratifying. Almost no one in the orchestra had ever played Cavalleria, but it seems to be in each musician’s DNA. That paradox produced extraordinary results. In an age of “international orchestral standards” there is still—thank goodness—a unique affinity that orchestras and choruses bring to performing music of their own cultures and in their own languages. What impressed me along with the sensitivity and depth of the playing was the power of osmosis. Given the surprising absence of performances of this work in the city of its birth, it is clear that these musicians had absorbed this work by other means from the culture into which they, and it, were born. Playing it for the first time, it sounded as if they had been doing so for decades. Conservatory education and professional experience, as essential as they are, do not tell the whole story of the formation of musical artists.

Food for thought: Two things strike me. First, on the assumption that some pieces are overplayed, they actually get ignored. I wonder, in the U.S., how much of our own music we similarly overlook. Do we need reminding that the body of classical music that is North American needs to be performed by those for whom it is an inherited style? Classical music in America is an imported art form. As we continue to develop young musicians on an ever higher technical level, it is important to recognize that, without a parallel commitment to absorbing the cultures from which the repertoire came, we will inevitably drift farther from their essences.

Second, I think it was Miles Davis who said, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” The resonance of the “unplayed notes” of this supposedly hackneyed opera were deeply evident in Rome last week. Mascagni’s first opera, written at the age of 24, created what was to become a new musical language, while depicting to perfection a specifically Sicilian drama. As Bizet, who had never seen Spain, intuited its essence and expressed it in Carmen, so Mascagni, who never travelled to Sicily, captured a part of its soul, and the late nineteenth century’s consciousness, in this sordid drama. The beauty and pwer of this music is still alive and well in Rome today.

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.