After inaugurating the new season with a rarity (Il campiello, never been staged in the Tuscan city before) the Opera di Firenze chose to settle on one of the most beloved operas, Cavalleria rusticana, fortunately uncoupled from its usual bedfellow, I pagliacci, and paired with the premiere of a ballet, La luce nel tempo, choreographed by Francesco Mappa and performed to music by Franz Joseph Haydn (Symphony in F minor Hob. 1:49 La Passione: Adagio(Allegro di molto/menuet/ Symphony in G major Hob. 1:94 mit dem Paukenschlag: Andante). My absolute ignorance in matters of ballet does not allow me to review, or even describe, the performance of the MaggioDanza, the Maggio’s corps de ballet. All I can say is that I enjoyed it.
Cavalleria rusticana was a revival of a production first unveiled in 2008 within Recondita armonia!, a series of masterpieces of the most popular repertoire staged in a deliberately traditional fashion so as to meet the demands of that part of the audience hostile the usually more daring offerings of the Festival proper. Mario Pontiggia’s mise-en-scène (with sets and costumes by Francesco Zito) has a very familiar setting: the square with the church and the tavern on its sides and a shining sea in the background, which immediately gives the idea of a Sicilian village perched on top of a mountain. A small group of men wanders about the square observing the action and occasionally participating in it: life in a small town has no privacy. The lone perplexing element in an otherwise impeccable and elegant production is the presence, right after the “Siciliana”, of Lola and Turiddu making out in the middle of the square, a decidedly unlikely behaviour even for such an incautious and reckless couple.
The cast was headed by Luciana D’Intino, an extremely dignified and deeply wounded Santuzza, a mature woman nursing her grief in a reserved manner, without however coming across as cold or detached. Vocally, it is undeniable that the veteran mezzo-soprano has a small hole in her middle register, where sound production is more laborious, and which she manages to partially conceal by singing softly in that area around B 4 / C 5. Her top is vibrant, easy and always on pitch: many a soprano would sell her own soul to the devil to be able to produce a high B such as the one concluding the “Prayer”, or the one at the very end of the opera, which many Santuzzas simply omit. At the other end of her range, Ms. D’Intino does not shy away from making use of chest notes, without abusing them, as demonstrated in the last “io piango” at the conclusion of “Voi lo sapete, o mamma”, a phrase that has always invited all sorts of histrionics of dubious taste.
Among the numerous memorable moments is her handling of the first statement of “Turiddu mi tolse l’onore”; it is sung very softly, as though Santuzza is so ashamed by what she is saying that she can barely bring herself to utter the words out loud; after her confession, the same phrase was repeated forte, and the beautifully sung high B flat summarizes the essence of this outburst. Turiddu was Sergio Escobar, a young Spanish tenor gifted with a powerful, attractive instrument, full of ring, but limited to his middle register, because above the stave he runs into all sorts of trouble: his high notes are always squeezed, at times flat, and for the record the high B flat at the end of “S’io non tornassi” came perilously close to cracking. It is unfortunate, because his virile timbre and smug interpretation would make him ideal for this role. Despite an increasingly parched timbre, Lucio Gallo was able to outline a plausible Alfio by virtue of the crisp and imaginative phrasing that has always been his foremost quality: his Alfio is poised, glacial and aloof, and therefore much more threatening, from his very first appearance. Martina Belli’s sensual colour was a good fit for Lola, while the casting as Mamma Lucia of fresh-voiced Cristina Melis, a singer much younger than Santuzza, was not a felicitous choice: there is certainly no shortage of mezzo-sopranos on their way to retirement.
The caress of the violins (which as a matter of fact Mascagni wants “sweet and religious”) in the very first measures of the Prelude gave an early hint of the presence of a conductor, Giampaolo Bisanti, capable of instantly creating an atmosphere: such a first sensation became a certainty during the course of the opera. Shortly after, still in the Prelude, it was exciting to hear the animando e crescendo assai bursting into a ff of secure impact, but hardly violent (as it often happens), followed at once by the melody of “la tua Santuzza piange e t’implora” performed by the flutes and trumpets in a sweetly lacerating manner, with a tempo that was appropriately slow (molto largo e sostenendo moltissimo) but not at all slackened. Such attention to the choice of tempos, to making sure that the opera turned out to be a concatenation of moments, one seamlessly flowing into the next, without generating a mere series of glued scenes was the stylistic trademark of the Italian conductor. He displayed a remarkable ability in breathing together with his pliable, plastic, malleable orchestra; he obtained impressive effects such as the one that occurred at the end of the “Brindisi”, when Bisanti, following Mascagni’s indications “sempre più f ed animando”, “più mosso”, launches the orchestra and the magnificent chorus into a crescendo, takes advantage of the rest to take a big breath and then bursts into the last, climatic “Beviam!”: a sound wave that, after inexorably rushing towards the rocks, hold up in the air just a moment and then crashes with liberating force.
This is creating suspense in music.