The opening of this year’s Opera Santa Barbara festival brought high expectations and a pair of shorter pieces. Pagliacci has the most famous aria (and the most desperately ironic ending) in all of opera, and its companion piece, Cavalleria Rusticana, combines the beauties of an Italian Easter Sunday with the rough-and-ready sensuality of the countryside. With Allan Glassman starring in both, the stage was set for wild passions. Director Linda Brovsky has set both shows in the same year, 1947, and the scenic designs and costumes did a great job of conveying post-war Calabria and Naples.
Cavalleria Rusticana opens with an eerie effect, as the voice of Turiddu (Glassman) is heard from a distance, seemingly emanating from somewhere behind the entrance to the theater. It’s a long time before Santuzza (Layna Chianakas), the village girl with whom Turiddu has been keeping company, gathers herself to reply, because she knows his song is not for her. Turiddu remains infatuated with his former flame, Lola (Tihana Herceg), who is now the wife of another man. When Santuzza finally does sing, the lament she pours out to Turiddu’s mother (Victoria Hart) is interrupted, first by the arrival of Lola’s husband Alfio (Malcolm MacKenzie), then by Turiddu himself, and finally by the glamorous Lola, who sings rapturously as she crosses the town square into the church. Herceg sings Lola with insouciance. She thus renders Turiddu’s passion and Alfio’s subsequent angry vows that he will get revenge entirely believable.
In his contradictory response to the situation, Turiddu represents the carnal and complex soul of these operas of passion. Sincerely attached to his dear “Santa,” Turiddu nevertheless finds himself inexorably drawn to Lola, the wrong woman. He leads the town in a delightful drinking song, but it is not long before he leaves the stage to meet his death.
In Pagliacci, the situation is reversed. The protagonist, Canio (Glassman), is the one being cuckolded, and his wife, Nedda (Barbara Divis), is the one having the affair. Instead of an Easter service we get a lovely vespers, and to add to the festivity, there is a whole troupe of traveling performers, including saltimbanques and clowns. Glassman performs the clown’s signature aria with great skill and heartbreaking emotion. When Canio becomes a murderer, it is easy to imagine that it is all for love.