Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci: a review.


Opera.  If you're a normal person, that word has all sorts of connotations to you.  They probably range from pretentious to "high art" to a fat lady with horns.  My own experiences with opera have been intentionally limited.  That's not to say I don't enjoy opera...quite the contrary.  I just enjoy being ignorant about it.  Confused?  Let me explain. 

At a tender age of 18, I was seduced by an opera singer (my older woman).  I've stuck by her side ever since, and she's taught me a thing or two about opera.  However, for the sake of being able to enjoy it, I've kept myself from learning too much.  I really don't think opera singers can enjoy opera, not really....they know too much.  They know when someone's breathing wrong and when someone's doing something that they shouldn't (even when no one else notices).  It's like me and film.  I've spent too much time learning about film to really enjoy a movie the way that I used to.  Now when I see a particular shot I wonder what kind of camera they're using or something equally stupid.  Some films are supposed to just be entertaining, and it's best that you don't try to delve to deeply into them as an art form.  Call me a bastard, but I think the same thing applies to opera.

My wife got a role recently in the Deutsche Oper's (that's one of the largest Opera Houses here in Berlin, in case you don't know).  What role?  Extra chorus.  Not normal chorus.  Extra chorus.  :shrug:  Still, it's work, and it got me a free ticket to see her and the show the house was producing:  Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci back to back.  I'm going to share a few of the highlights and observations from the show, mostly to educate a few non-opera folks what's going on in the name of "OPERA" these days. 

This was my first show at the Deutche Oper.  Previously, I've seen a production of the "Abduction from the Seraglio" at the Komische Oper.  It was an interesting piece that included a prostitute being cut up and having a nipple removed during the lead soprano's singing while the leading male fingered her on stage.  Did I mention that Germans like their operas to be surreal and "mature?"  It's interesting to see what the Germans like to do to bring "new life" into some of the classic operas.  Now just so we're clear....there are no "traditional productions" of operas being performed here in Berlin.  Perhaps some people will disagree with me, but the other opera house in Berlin did a production of Don Giovanni that was also pretty far out.  Where else can you see Don Giovanni in S&M bondage before he's castrated on-stage (complete with a floppy 9-inch fleshy dildo that almost lands in the orchestra pit) and then abducted by a giant UFO before going to hell?  Gah.  I think it's kind of obvious why I dig these productions.  They play like bad movies.  Sure, the singing is the traditional part, but since I'm not an opera insider, for better or for worse, I have to focus on the plot.  Oh, the plots.  But let me get back on topic.

Cavalleria Rusticana, by Pietro Mascagni, is a short opera that's pretty domestic.  One man sleeping around, people cry about it, someone dies.  Completing the opera stereotype, there're several scenes that revolve around drinking.  The opera traditionally takes place in a small Sicilian village.  The Deutche Oper's version decided to set theirs on the off-ramp of a highway.  Seriously.  The entire thing takes place beneath a highway overpass.  Apparently, they thought going the "white-trash" route was the best way to go. :shrug: To each their own.  Instead of a church (as in the original one) we get a traditional Catholic-style parade where people walk under the overpass and turn it into a shrine.  You know what it looks like?  It looks just like those tacky flea-market type stands you see on the side of the road, selling velvet paintings of Elvis and Jesus playing golf.  God, I love opera.

Another great thing about this production is the casting for the two male leads.  Two words:  Tubby bastards.  Both the leads are portly men, who look exactly the same, save that one wears a hat.  At first I thought it was one of those clever casting jobs...but no.  Tubby bastards all around, it seems.  On a side note, it's keen to point out that for the most part, the role of the "fat lady" is over these days in modern opera.  Classic "fat lady" roles are being given to the heroin chic skinny girls left and right, while anyone over a size 12 is delegated to playing the mother.  :sigh:  Anyway, one of these tubby bastard's names is Alfio, and he's a "carter."  That means he's a delivery man.  Apparently, in Sicily this job is only lower than the Pope prestige-wise as I translate actual dialog from the Opera:
Alfio (fat bastard):  The whip cracks, Get Along! Let the wind blow cold, rain or snow fall, what care I?

Chorus (who apparently worship all forms of delivery-men): O a [delivery man's] life is a fine life, going from place to place!

Lucia:  You are lucky, friend Alfio, to always be so Gay!

Sometimes it's too easy to mock something.  Now in the traditional production of Rusticana, Alfio is leading a cart with horses (hence the "whip it good" line).  In the Deutche Oper's production?  Instead of singing about his cart, Alfio drives on stage singing about how freaking hot his banana-colored three-wheeled pick-up truck is.

If you accept that this is a white-trash production of Cavalleria Rusticana, then it's easy to accept why Alfio's an envied man.  He's got a job, while everyone else has to eat rat or something.  Remind me to never go under any overpasses if I visit Italy.

Now my wife was in this part of the show and that earned me a complimentary the nosebleed section.  Hey, it was free but when the "extra chorus" came out walking on the highway upstage, I couldn't see their faces.  It's completely surreal to be sitting in an opera house trying to identify the ass of someone you know.  Anyway...
Let me get to the "golden moment" of Cavallera Rusticana.  Alfio and Turiddu (the sexy stud of the play who was also a fat bastard) decide to fight.  Apparently, Sicily is a country very confident in it's masculinity, because men there signal a challenge by biting one another's ears.  Just what I wanted to see:  Two sweaty over-weight men biting each other.  Opera's great isn't it?  This is not the best part.  After Turiddu lies on the filthy couch (I told you this production was white-trash) and calls for his mother, he walks off stage where it's implied that he's killed.  The cast brings a dummy that's supposed to be him on-stage and throw it over the side of the "highway" so that it falls center-stage.  Sweet mother of God.  There are so many thing wrong with this:

1.  This is the same trick that you see in all those terrible movies where they throw a dummy over a cliff and you're supposed to think that it's a character.  The arms bend every which way and you can see the stuffing falling out all over the place.

2.  I made better dummies when I was 8 by stuffing my father's clothing with dead leaves.

3.  Apparently when the prop master for the Deustch Oper was creating Turiddu's dummy, he ignored one minor fact:  The singer playing Turiddu was indeed a tubby bitch of a man.  If the dummy's supposed to be Turiddu, then someone needs to explain how Turiddu lost about a hundred pounds just before he died. 

And just so you know, I couldn't stop laughing when I saw them throw the dummy.  It was pure camp.  I loved it.

The 2nd part of the show was Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.  Now more of you should be familiar with this one.  It's about a troupe of clowns that include a horny hunchback, a murderous leader, and a sort-of slutty girl.  There's also a peasant in love mixed in there.  Evil clowns.  Awesome.  I assume that this one also takes place in Italy (I'm aware that Sicily is not part of Italy, but hey, close enough).  My expectations were high with this one:  a horny-as hell hunchback mutant clown in addition to clown-drama and murder and remorse all over the place.  What did the Deutche Oper do with this?

1.  THE CLOWN MAFIA.  Instead of making the cast a group of clowns, the director thought it would be clever to make the singers mafioso that wear red clown noses.  Gah.  I've seen jokes made on the Cartoon Network about the Clown Mafia, but sweet Jesus, you're supposed to take it seriously.  Ok. No clowns.  I can live with that,  as long as they didn't remove:

2. THE HORNY HUNCHBACK.  Ok.  In the libretto ("script" to the opera-stupid among us) Tonio is supposed to be disfigured and scary.  In this production?  They made him a tubby fat bastard.  Wait a second.  So the director is saying that being fat is being disfigured?  So the first part (Rusticana) was about two disfigured sweaty guys biting each other's ears?  What?  Not that I need to be more clear, I was very saddened by the conversion of mutant hunchback to fat singer.  :sigh:

3.  Silvio (the peasant in love) is an autistic retard.  I'm serious.  I can think of nothing else to say except that the love interest of this piece is an autistic retarded man.  "Opera.  Definitley Opera. I like to drive.  I'm an excellent driver."

There's a few other things that brought a little joy to my face in this part of the show.  These moments include Pagliaccio stabbing his wife in the crotch and a black man being chased by a door for no reason whatsoever. 

In my defense, I'd like to point out that there is some symbolic value to some of the weirdness.  Silvio is an autistic retard to illustrate that Nedda (the only woman in the show) falls for weak men.   The whole piece is about masculinity, and as far as "symbolism" goes, it's got some good ideas behind it.  That DOES NOT, however, make watching the Clown Mafia and an Autistic Retard rumble on stage any less painful.  Apparently, I'm not the only one that thinks this, as the director of this production (both parts) was booed like crazy on opening night.  God bless a German audience's honesty.

I hope you've enjoyed my showing just how ignorant I am concerning opera, and I hope that you've at least been entertained.  In the mean time I'm saving my money so that I can watch a production of "Marriage of Figaro" that takes place completely inside a woman's vagina.   God, I love opera.




copyright 2005 jared hindman, including those keen little pictures. ..