Exploring new opera vistas: Norma, Cavalleria Rusticana, and Pagliacci
Having grown up on a steady diet of German opera and lieder as well as Spanish guitar, I count myself lucky to have been exposed to classical music from an early age in a way that few Americans of my generation were. That being said, in recent years I’ve found myself reflecting on where the gaps might be. What don’t I know? What would I like to learn? How could I gain a greater understanding of these art forms that have had such a profound influence on my life? With that in mind, my mother and I have been making a point to explore opera that, while well known to her, is still new territory to me.
We began with a foray into bel canto with Norma, the title role of which I had heard her perform years ago when I was a child. She pointed out the vocal ornamentation, waxed rhapsodic about Joan Sutherland’s performances of Norma, and shared a bit of the history behind how Italian opera developed, influencing art and aesthetics across the continent. I was curious about the Druid themes, watching with interest how pagans interacted with Roman forces and wondering what it must have been like to live in a time when the early foundations of what we now consider European society were being laid.
More recently, we finally saw a staple of verismo: Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, two one-act operas that are typically performed on a single bill. The night out became an occasion for Mom to share some serendipitous family history, much as she did last summer when we heard the New York Philharmonic in Central Park. Apparently Mom’s first ever opera performance was as part of the chorus in a college production of Cavalleria Rusticana while she was still in junior high school. My grandmother and aunt were in attendance that night. While they were nonplussed, Mom was hooked and that was it. Now, sixty years later, she is able to share this same opera with me.
Although both Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci came across to me as snapshots of life in a small nineteenth century Italian community, almost artifacts of the past to a certain degree, there was no denying that their thematic focus on passionate romantic love as a vital force in all of our lives resonates just as truly today as it ever has. They portray passion in ways that would be immediately understandable to us in the twenty-first century. Rather than symbolic and abstract, as it appears in my beloved Pelléas et Mélisande, or epic and mythical, as it manifests in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, in both Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci it is visceral and undeniably gripping.
In Pagliacci, Nedda and Tonio’s smoldering, explosive affair is something to behold. I had never seen eroticism portrayed in such a frank, down-to-earth fashion in the opera, basically as you might see it in a film or tv show today—and I think the Met’s stage direction here was really on point. Mom, for her part, said that Aleksandra Kurzak sang Nedda better than anyone else she had ever heard. We also adored the sets, which were endearing and charming—right down to the special blue curtain with twinkling metallic stars. And we enjoyed the play-within-a-play nature of the opera (complete with matching mini blue curtain for the mini stage-within-a-stage), which reminded me of the many Shakespeare plays I’d read featuring just that same device.
I came away from these Italian operas with a new appreciation for the many different ways in which opera expresses the human condition. It’s always a blessing to re-engage with something so dear to you from a new angle, especially alongside someone close to you who knows it intimately. Although I had heard my mom talk about these operas many times throughout my childhood and had even seen her perform in one of them (though my memories are hazy at best), I had never had the chance to explore them with her since, for the most part, she wasn’t working on any of those roles. I even joked to her that the only way I knew Pagliacci was through Star Trek: Voyager’s episode “Virtuoso” (true). Now, though these trips to other areas of the opera canon, together we are appreciating the pleasures and delights they hold for veterans and newcomers alike.