Cavalleria poster

I was heartened by the response to the screening of Cavalleria Rusticana at the Fundação Oriente premises, Fontainhas Panjim earlier this month.

Although Cavalleria Rusticana is usually Easter fare, I decided to show it now because it seems to be topical in India right now. It will be staged in Delhi in November this year, with cast and chorus of Opera di Roma, backed by the India Youth Orchestra conducted by Vijay Upadhyaya (as part of Italy’s celebration of 150 years of reunification), and again in an independent production by the Symphony Orchestra of India at the NCPA Mumbai in February 2012.

Several musicians from Goa will be travelling to Delhi for the November concert. I thought it would help if we could watch the opera and put the music score that we were learning into context.

This production from Deutsche Grammophon features an extremely youthful Plácido Domingo as Turridu, with Elena Obraztsova as Santuzza, Renato Bruson as Alfio, Axelle Gall as Lola and Fedora Barbieri as Mamma Lucia. There seems to be little to find fault with, in this stunning film by Franco Zefirelli, shot on location in Vizzini, Sicily in 1981. It is a musical and visual treat, even if you are not particularly crazy about opera, or even about music. The lush Sicilian landscape, the spectacle and grandeur of the Easter procession, the authentic costumes, all take the breath away.

Domingo is in his element, and makes the demands of his role seems effortless. The disadvantage of an opera film (as opposed to a film of a live production on stage) of course is that flaws can be edited. Nevertheless, there is much to recommend this production. One can sense raw energy in the confrontation scene between Santuzza and Turiddu. Obraztsova’s Santuzza is utterly convincing, although Zefirelli casts her as a stalking neurotic.  

The landscape reminded me several times of scenes from the Godfather trilogy that were also set in Sicily. The parallel with the Godfather continues of course in the final scene of Godfather III, where this opera provides the mise en scène, the “play within the play” device much favoured by Shakespeare. Don Michael Corleone’s son makes his operatic début as Turiddu. The Easter procession in the opera on stage is juxtaposed against flashbacks to two procession scenes in the trilogy (the first one from Godfather II, during a fiesta where the first Don Corleone [played by Robert de Niro] in his youth shoots Don Fanucci in a darkened stairway; and the other in Godfather III where the Don’s heir-apparent, nephew Vincenzo stages a vendetta killing of the enemy of the Corleone family, Joey Zaza). When the Easter Hymn, the paean to God is at its peak, Francis Ford Coppolla contrasts it with dark diabolical scenes of score-settling by the Corleone family. The ear-biting scene onstage is a throwback to an earlier episode in the film where Vincenzo (Vincent) does the same to Joey Zaza. The final scream at the very end of the opera when Turiddu’s murder is discovered is echoed later on the steps of the opera house in an unforgettable segment of cinema history, when the Don (Al Pacino) shrieks as he cradles his dead daughter Mary.

Back to the opera: each of the characters seems to have their shades of grey. (Click here for a synopsis of the opera. Caution: read no further if you do not want to know how the story ends).

Turiddu: initially seems to be the ‘blackest’ of them all. After all, isn’t he carrying on with someone else’s wife? But if you think about it, this “someone else’s wife” (Lola) was once his sweetheart, and they were betrothed before he set off to war. Although he consoles himself by having a relationship with Santuzza when he learns that Lola has married Alfio, he still carries a torch for Lola, and when she encourages him, he only too readily rekindles his feelings for her. That he does this despite having gotten Santuzza pregnant (this is implied in the play and opera) is what really tilts the morality scales against him. Too late, he begins to worry about Santuzza’s fate in the almost-certain event of his death and makes his mother promise to take her in. Too little too late, pal!

Santuzza: as her name suggests, is the long-suffering saint, and a tad sanctimonious too. She is the wronged woman, and she desperately tries to keep her man. So she pours her heart out to Mamma Lucia, Turiddu’s mother. So far so good. After all, it’s good to win over one’s prospective mother-in-law! But hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. When Turiddu indicates he’s had enough of her stalking and accusations and goes to church with Lola, she in her anger spitefully lets Alfio know what a cuckold he is. Surely she ought to have known that this would have consequences. After all this is Sicily, vendetta-land! She keeps saying she loves Turiddu despite everything, but she then goes and effectively signs his death warrant!

Lola: A cunning little vixen, if ever there was one! Decides she can’t wait around for Turiddu to return from all that pesky fighting, and ties the knot with Alfio instead. Then when Turiddu does return, she carries on with him, while still wedded to Alfio. No real redeeming features in her character. It’s a short opera, and Lola’s got the smallest part, so perhaps it was not possible to give her character much depth.

Alfio: Actually, he comes across as the best of the lot, even though he eventually commits murder. Hardworking carter, he genuinely loves his wife, and thinks the feeling is mutual. When confronted with the truth, he is fury incarnate, but nevertheless it is only when Turiddu seems to taunt him by asking him to share a toast, that he reveals that the game is up. And it is Turiddu who challenges him to a fight to the death, so it’s a question of honour now. 

Although the opera seems to end with Turiddu’s “honour killing”, if this were real life the vendetta cycle would have just begun. A member of Turiddu’s family would be compelled to avenge the death, and so it would carry on, and the body count would pile up.

So there you have it: a love quadrangle, inflamed passions, jealousy, revenge. A pot-boiler of a plot! Chalo Delhi, I say!