Michael Corleone: Where are all the men?
Fabrizio: They're all dead from vendettas.
Think about that extraordinary moment in The Godfather. It's the late 1940's, the men in the Sicilian town of Corleone are all dead: not from World War II, not from execution by the Fascists, they're all dead because the mafia killed them, killed each other, and killed themselves. The Sicilian scenes both The Godfather and Godfather II are absolutely impossible without Cavalleria Rusticana, Nino Rota's score is impossible without Cavalleria Rusticana. Sadly, Coppola used Godfather III pay enormous homage to that overwhelming debt. Not only does the climax hinge around a staging in Palermo of Cavalleria, but the very climax of Godfather III uses the famous Intermezzo of Cavalleria to show the devastation of Michael Corleone's descent into evil. It did this great opera no favors. Perhaps it's better to remember Cavalleria in the other great homage paid to it, at the beginning of Raging Bull, when Martin Scorsese uses the same intermezzo to invoke the tortured but unmistakable grandeur of his prize fighter, Jake LaMotta.
Cavalleria Rusticana is not an opera, it is a tone poem with voices about the spirit of Sicily. I often think it would work better in the concert hall than it ever could on stage. Everything which Southern Italy is known for being: the overwhelming lust for both flesh and blood, the overwhelming, almost pagan veneration of Catholicism with all its mysticism and iconography, the longing for vengeance and domination and the shadow self of religious guilt which accompany such selfish aspirations, the possessive love and loyalty between parents and children, the overwhelming, dare we say, operatic, passion for all aspects of life, including and perhaps particularly death. All of which takes place against the backdrop of what should be a Mediterranean paradise.
And because Cavalleria Rusticana is such a testament to the values of Sicily and European peasant life, it also marks an important chapter in American music. Thirty years after Martin Scorsese made Raging Bull, he directed the pilot of the HBO show about the dawn of the American Mafia, Boardwalk Empire. All throughout the series, these new American gangsters are represented in the soundtrack by the new genre of music that accompanied this new American outlaw spirit: Jazz. But toward the end of the first episode, when the screenplay demands, as history did, the assassination of the famed Chicago Boss from Calabria in Southern Italy, Big Jim Colosimo, the whole montage is accompanied by a wax recording Colosimo puts on - a recording of Enrico Caruso singing the famous siciliana at the beginning of Cavalleria Rusticana - O Lola. Italian opera - Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Cilea - and particularly the operas of the 'verismo' movement, which aimed to mirror the harsh realities of its audiences' lives, was the soundtrack with which Italian-American immigrants got through their hard lives, filled as they were with frustration and toil.
Very little actually happens in Cavalleria Rusticana. As a piece of theater, the action is plotted so awkwardly that it's almost incompetent. Fortunately, the spoken text is kept to a bare minimum - it's left almost completely to this miraculous score to tell this all too banal tale of infidelity and revenge. The music seems to make no claims on the extraordinariness of its characters, it seems to state baldly - 'this is a normal tragedy that could happen to any of us.' When the climactic act of violence happens, it happens offstage. As pure theater, that's an act of pure incompetence and robs the climax of the excitement which it deserves. And yet, when it comes time for Pietro Mascagni, this otherwise little-performed composer, to set it to music, he finds the exact right tones to convey searingly tragic news. When we hear of the climactic murder, we get a taste of what it must feel like to get news over the phone of a loved one's senseless death - an experience which every European peasant, and every poor European immigrant to America, must have had multiple times over the course of their lives.
I don't claim any rhyme or reason to my love of Cavalleria Rusticana, but this piece of Sicillian trash is tattooed on my heart, and it broke my heart that my first live production of it exhibited so little understanding of what makes it so wonderful. The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera was of course very good - their amazing string section practically sobbed through the music. And yet the brass had such a muzzle placed on them that they might as well have gone home for how little they were needed. Even with the muzzle placed upon the brass, it was much too hard to hear the singers, all of whom were eaten alive by the Metropolitan Opera's 3800 seat house, whose acoustic is so dead that birds would fall down dead before we'd ever hear their chirps. The conductor, Fabio Luisi, seems about as good a conductor as you can be without being a great one. He does all the right things: he never misses a cue to the singers, and he gets the orchestra to sing the music with enormous warmth. When it comes, however, to the more imaginative aspects of conducting, he seems completely lost. It's a rare time that I find myself longing for Riccardo Muti's presence, but Muti, for all his dictatorial properties as an opera conductor, shapes Italian Opera with incredible imagination, and knows exactly how to wring every moment for excitement and passion. He would know exactly where to rein the brass in, and exactly when to take their muzzle off.
If only the production had anything recommendable about it, the problems in the music would have been solved. Instead of the vibrant, gorgeous Mediterranean world of Sicily, we experienced a production all in black - with an ascetically bare and black theatrical et and monochromatically black costumes. Clearly, the Scottish theatrical director, David MacVicar, had no feeling for the spirit of this piece, and saw in its slowness a kind of slow ritual enactment similar to Parsifal. Everything about the staging - right down to the lighting effects, seemed meant to be redolent of Wieland Wagner's famous revisionist staging of his grandfather's final work. But there is nothing farther from the high-minded sanctity (some might say sanctimoniousness) of Parsifal than this deliberately banal tale of vengeance, obsession, guilt, lust, and love. Parsifal seeks to dwell upon the highest spiritual plane, Cavalleria Rusticana seeks to grind our noses in the shit of what everyday life can be.