I had appeared to have spoken with a tone of superiority while informing a friend that I was to spend an evening watching two Operas. 'The Opera!?' the recipient of my smugness replied with sufficient (and a pleasingly expected) sense of awe. Deep down I knew the honour was being bequeathed upon me. New to the genre, I was not expected to understand the intricacies of the form, and I was determined to sit through the two performances, each about an hour long with a 45-minute interval thrown in for good measure. For my first time at the Opera, it was all rather demanding but very interesting too.
So, as always, Google came to the rescue. Keying in 'How to appreciate an Opera?' threw up reassuring answers. I needed to read up a bit about the two Operas I was going to watch -- Pietro Mascagani's CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA and Ruggero Leoncavallo's I PAGLIACCI -- also known as the Cav/Pag double bill were part of the NCPA and the Symphony Orchestra of India's 12th Opera season. Googling the names of the Operas brought up interesting bits of information to pad up the storylines. My online exploration had ended with a Youtube video of the late Luciano Pavarotti's version of Pagliacci. The great tenor with his expressions and voice makes you deeply feel the extent of Pagliacci's grief.
Essentially, CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA is about Turiddu, a villager, who returns from military service to find that his fiancee Lola had married Alfio. In order to make Lola jealous Turiddo seduces Santuzza a young woman from the village. Turiddo's plan to get Lola back is successful but a scorned Santuzza informs Alfio about his wife's betrayal.
Alfio swears revenge and the Opera comes to a bloody end. In PAGLIACCI, it is Nedda who betrays her husband Canio and is exposed by Tonio, the fool. PAGLIACCI is based on the play-within-a-play concept and Canio plays Pagliacci, the jealous husband in a commedia dell'arte troupe. As the Opera progresses, fact reflects fiction with Nedda committing adultery as her stage character Colombina. Overcome by rage when his wife is exposed, Canio wants to know who her lover is but Nedda won't tell. The bell for the evening's performance is heard and since the show must go on, the husband and wife postpone their fight. But during the performance Pagliacci loses control and stabs his wife and her lover and the Opera come to a bloody end.
CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA seemed to stick to the traditional/original style of presentation. The stage design included the main square of the village, Turiddo's house and his mother's wine shop as well as the church. Since the Opera plays out on Easter day, religious hymns are part of the performance. The Easter celebrations also lead to perhaps the most spectacular scene of the Opera when the villagers' procession goes into the church singing an Easter Hymn. As the huge chorus enters the large doors of the church the magnanimity of the production hits you.
In comparison, PAGLIACCI was more relatable. Stage Director Willy Landin has contemporised and to that effect even Indianized the Opera by bringing in Malkhambh artists instead of acrobats. The clowns and the chorus were stripped off their 19th century costume and make up. The singers also seemed a lot more comfortable as actors and that made the repetitive storyline worth the effort.
Overall, the music for both the Operas was grand. The film Godfather III has borrowed a musical piece from CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA for its climax scene but I didn't particularly recognise the piece when it was played. I was nevertheless excited to watch a live orchestra mirror the lives of the stricken characters on stage.
*Aditi Sharma enjoys watching theatre and writing about it.