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REGIONAL FLAVORS: Opera in the south of Italy

September 5, 2011

Anyone who has traveled in Italy knows that every region has its own special flair.  Not that this is that much of a surprise; different regions of Germany and France have their own qualities too.  Even the state of California, which outsizes the entire country of Italy by 33 percent, has a different vibe as one travels north to south and east to west.

Cover of the first edition of Pagliacci published by E. Sonzogno, Milan, 1892

But unlike California, Italy once consisted of several different kingdoms and duchies, which continue to define the cultural characteristics of the twenty autonomous regions of the country today.  The most notable differences lie in a comparison of north to south.  As the travel book, Let’s Go: Europe, says: “South of Rome, the sun gets brighter, the meals longer and the passions more intense.”  One could argue that the music of southern Italy gets more passionate too.

The stylistic shifts of Italian opera cannot be completely attributed to shifting regional influences, but it is notable that the movement most closely associated with realism and raw emotions, verismo, had a strong constituency of southern-born and trained composers, such as Ruggero Leoncavallo, who composed Pagliacci.  An interesting study may be conducted by comparing Pagliacci to its frequent sister piece, Cavalleria Rusticana, by Pietro Mascagni, who was born in Tuscany and trained in the northern city of Milan.

Both operas sit squarely in the verismo era, striving to depict pathos-laden, frequently violent, scenes of peasant life.  Both operas feature a love triangle.  In each story, the unrequited lover, in a fit of rage and jealousy, tells the husband-character that he has been cuckolded.  The husband, then, in his own fit of jealousy, confronts and murders his wife’s lover.  Pagliacci is slightly more violent, in that the husband also murders his wife.  And yet, for two works composed in the same idiom, directed toward the same audience, with such similar plotlines and premiered within two years of each other, there are significant stylistic differences between the two.

Cavalleria Rusticana is what is known as a “number opera.”  This means that arias, recitative sections and ensemble numbers alternate in a fairly regular succession.  Mascagni even makes use of the cantabile/cabaletta formula, tying this opera to traditional Italian compositional technique.  Leoncavallo diverges from this tradition somewhat in Pagliacci.  There are still closed scenes, arias and chorus numbers, but the alternation is not quite as regular.  But beyond the compositional differences of these pieces, the difference in mood is palpable.

An illustration in an early edition of Giovanni Verga's short story "Cavalleria rusticana," circa 1880 (artist unknown)

Pagliacci features staccato articulation and short phrases throughout almost the entire opera, which gives the piece a feeling of jumpiness and immediacy.  It helps that the story is about a troupe of traveling actors and the peasants who have come to see the show.  In contrast to this, Cavalleria Rusticana takes place on Easter morning and heavily features a chorus of hymn-singing women.  This necessarily adds a certain austerity and slows down the action.  Where the lyrical portions of Pagliacci serve as poignant breaks from a general sense of uneasiness, the passionate outbursts of Cavalleria come as shocking surprises between the hymnody.  Both methods have their merits, but I find the realism of Pagliacci a little more authentic.

I also find that the musical characterization in Cavalleria misses its mark somewhat.  Turiddu, the man who has impregnated Santuzza and is now sleeping with Alfio’s wife, is introduced with a lyrical “Siciliana” serenade, whereas the victim Santuzza is introduced with an ominous line played by the lower strings.  This heavy line (beginning circa 2:43) is no doubt intended to depict that she is heavy with shame (and with child) while the rest of the town is celebrating the religious feast.  The church looms in the background throughout the whole opera, adding a sort of moral urgency to everything that happens, but this is a rather esoteric message that the observer deduces, rather than feels.  In the meantime, the listener is left wondering why Santuzza sounds like a villain.  The realism, the humanity, of her character is already lost.

There are, no doubt, as many exceptions as there are confirmations of the regional differences in Italian musical style.  In this small comparison, however, the stereotype of the more passionate, more in-your-face southerner holds true.  Although the Tuscan Mascagni was writing about a Sicilian village, Leoncavallo wins the prize for depicting south Italian passion.

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