Saturday, October 09, 2010

Sunday Classics preview: Mr. Mascagni goes to the movies (2)


Spoiler alert: If you've never seen The Godfather, Part III, and think you might someday want to, don't watch the clip. This is how the film ends, over the complete Cavalleria rusticana Intermezzo.

by Ken

Yes, that's our old friend from last night's preview, the Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni's one-act opera Cavalleria rusticana, over which director Francis Ford Coppola brought The Godfather, Part III to its conclusion. And it's awfully effective, don't you think?

Actually, I like Godfather III better than . . . well, better than a lot of people like it. Probably you're thinking, that's 'cause it's got all that (yuck!) opera in it. As you recall, Coppola and his team worked Cavalleria rusticana into the plot by having Don Michael Corleone's son Anthony decide to become an operatic tenor and make his debut in the demanding role of Turiddu at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, the capital of the Corleone homeland, Sicily (and certainly an appropriate venue for this quintessentially Sicilian tale.

As a matter of fact, I have serious problems with the way the opera is (mis)used in the film, but let's leave those for tomorrow. The use of Cavalleria in the film, in addition to setting up the use of the Intermezzo for that final sequence, enables Coppola to incorporate some glorious music, starting with the opening of the opera. Well, a garbled version of the opening. The orchestral Prelude is heard while the crowd, including the assorted Corleone family members and associates, is strolling into the opera house, and about ten minutes later, in an undarkened house with the curtain still down, the opera "begins" with the "Siciliana." In reality, the "Siciliana" is embedded in the Prelude, a brilliant stroke by Mascagni, who gets to introduce us to the opera's "hero," Turiddu, heard offstage serenading the beauteous Lola -- almost always singing in Sicilian dialect. Let's not quibble about that, though; Coppola commits a vastly more serious misrepresentation of the opera, which we'll talk about tomorrow.

The photo I used last night was of the older Mascagni, since the recording we were about to hear was from a performance of Cavalleria rusticana he conducted at the age of 75. It's important to remember, though, that the opera was written by a young man -- he was 26 when it had its first performance, which is to say some five years before the photo at right is thought to have been taken.

I figured I could find a choice of serviceable video clips of the "Siciliana," but trust me, you don't want to see or hear the things I saw and heard in the quest. The best I could come up with is this clip of Mario del Monaco sort of bulldogging his way through, and the audio quality of the clip does him no favor either. But we are hearing an authentic big-time, and jumbo-size, voice brought to bear on the music.

We're going to hear more of the Prelude and "Siciliana" tomorrow, but for now I thought it would be fun to hear the not-quite-31-year-old Enrico Caruso sing the "Siciliana," with real elegance and subtlety of tone and phrasing. This 1904 New York recording was already Caruso's third of the piece -- at a time when the opera, after all, wasn't even 14 years old. (This recording is, curiously, significantly quicker than Caruso's April 1903 Milan one.)

MASCAGNI: Cavalleria rusticana: "Siciliana"
Enrico Caruso, tenor, with piano accompaniment. Victor/RCA/BMG, recorded in New York, Feb. 1, 1904

Now I thought we might hear the entire Prelude sequence, with the "Siciliana" properly embedded, in a recording notable at least for novelty value, with José Cura conducting as well as singing. (Do we really want to know how it was done?)

MASCAGNI: Cavalleria rusticana: Prelude and "Siciliana"
José Cura, tenor; Philharmonia Orchestra, José Cura. Erato, recorded June 1999
[UPDATE: The harping that announces the "Siciliana" begins at about 2:57. I can't tell you how many times I started playing the clip to get the time, only to be sidetracked onto something else.]

Finally -- at least in the movie -- Coppola makes highly dramatic (or literally melodramatic) use (or more accurately abuse) of the great Easter service, which provides a backdrop for the film's climactic serial bloodbath. Again we'll hear a lot more of this tomorrow. For tonight let's just sample it from the point at which the poor heroine, Santuzza, who has been excommunicated, joins in, singing, "Inneggiamo, il Signor non è non è morto" -- "Let us celebrate in hymn that the Lord is not dead. (We'll come back to that word "inneggiamo" tomorrow.)

This clip is from a 1976 Tokyo TV performance conducted by Olivero de Fabritiis, with mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto, which I picked over a worse-sounding 1978 Met clip with Tatiana Troyanos; we will have a clip from that performance tomorrow (I think -- that's assuming I don't change my mind).

Here, finally, is a younger Fiorenza Cossotto, under controlled studio conditions, with a conductor who takes a strikingly -- and, I think, stunningly -- original approach, really digging into how this music represents these Sicilian villagers' emotional urgencies and building, I think, to an overwhelming climax.

MASCAGNI: Cavalleria rusticana: "Inneggiamo, il Signor non è morto"
Fiorenza Cossotto (ms), Santuzza; Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded Sept.-Oct. 1965


In case you haven't gotten the idea yet, our subject is Cavalleria rusticana.

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