A one-act melodrama by Pietro Mascagni, Cavalleria Rusticana, Italian for "Rustic Chivalry" — or, better yet, "As The Old World Turns," brims with lusty romance, jealousy, betrayal and over-the-top tragedy.
Opera Tampa's production brings the shame and persecution with pleasant earth tones. Muted 18th century costumes complement a terra cotta village flanked by a blue-sky backdrop. Coppola conducts a memorable overture with dreamy violins and a flitting touch of flute. (Side note: he appears in his nephew's Godfather III, conducting the opera's intermezzo overture.)
Excesses aside, the libretto accurately reflects life in a Southern Italian town, a routine still ruled by church, gossip, sentimental tradition and unnecessary feuds. Scott Piper stars in both operas, starting with the flawed Turiddu in Cav, who after returning home from war, jettisons his honor in an act of adultery.
Through dialogue we learn that Turiddu has rushed to the arms of a newlywed, newly ex-girlfriend, Lola (Dawn Pierce). He vexes Lola by making love to Santuzza (played exquisitely by Cristina Nassif). The town priest gets wind of the act and excommunicates Turiddu's girl No. 2. To make matters worse, Turiddu and Lola reunite and flagrantly begin an affair, witnessed by the dejected Santuzza. In her tears, Santuzza inadvertently spills the beans to Lola's husband, Alfio (Michael Corvino).
Fate and the furious hubby catch up with Turiddu. Director Michael Shell captures his tragic end with a Pieta-inspired tableau.
Both Piper and Nassif infuse their tragic roles with sympathetic humanity. Turiddu's tender goodbye to his mother, Mama Lucia (Susan Nicely) brings the story to heartrending climax with his final words: "Un bacio, mamma! Un altro bacio! — Addio!" ("One kiss, mother! One more kiss! - Farewell!").
Nicely authentically portrays the widow in black with a heart of gold. Make-up/wig artists Linda and Don Guillot impressively transform her to look the part.
Piper, who plays the flawed Turiddu for the first time, attacks the role like a natural-born Sicilian, and Nassif's sweetly pained vocal beams from the stage, triggering the pangs of lost love with searing intensity and graceful elegance. Baritone Corvino has one impressive turn when Alfio engages the villagers in a merry aria of braggadocio. Corvino spouts off a provincial Sicilian dialect with perfect inflection.
Though musically impeccable, Cav's plot has some lulls. The tributes to religious rituals, processions and hymns, though angelic and beautifully performed by Opera Tampa's excellent chorus, grow to be a a bit tedious.
Inspired by Mascagni's tragedy, composer Ruggero Leoncavallo followed with a more taut, entertaining and exciting drama when he composed I Pagliacci ("The clowns").
The two-act drama takes place at the turn of the century in Calabria, ushered in with a humorous intro by the hunchbacked Tonio (Corvino) and the curtain opens to the celebrated arrival of a roving band of clowns, who have just arrived to perform their commedia dell'arte about an unfaithful spouse. The story gets all meta on us when life imitates art, and the play within a play ends in real-life tragedy.
Pag's Nedda, performed by Nassif, offers an exciting and extreme contrast from the pitiful victim Santuzza. Nedda is saucy and frisky, even going so far as to lie prostrate on the floor like pop music's Madonna. In "Stridono lassu," she sings lustfully about the August rays on her skin, longing for the "freedom of birds overhead" — an especially charismatic aria from Nassif.
Husband Canio (Piper), a hearty and simple workaday provider charms the villages but has become a bore to the adventure-seeking Nedda. As Nedda's pheromones kick into full gear, Pagliaccio's assistant Tonio — who we learn is a wretched sleazebag — forewarns Canio that what's happening onstage might be happening under his nose and makes a play for Nedda. She deflects Tonio's advances, which ensures with predictability that Tonio's going to rat her out to Canio, and the opportunity comes to Tonio on a silver platter when Nedda and new lover, Silvio, get carried away in a lustful embrace — this time not behind closed doors (as with Cav) but with PG-13 passion, in full view. Silvio, whom Nedda protects by dismissing as "just another harlequin," escapes before Canio recognizes him, and Nedda refuses to give up his identity.
Angry and despondent, Piper's Canio launches into one of opera's most venerated arias "Vesti la giubba" ("Put on the make-up"), the "tears of a clown" classic that influenced a barrage of sad sacks in face paint for years to come. Piper's powerful performance of the soaring anthem erases every memory of every predecessor who belted out, "Ridi, pagliaccio!" ("Laugh, clown!") — and that's saying a lot.
With a vocal register that the program describes as spinto tenor — named for the Italian word for "pushed" — Piper delivers exaltant crescendoes that sound effortless, especially in the opera's famous, murderous finale, "No, pagliaccio, non son" ("No, a clown, I am not.")
Mascagni and Leoncavallo's earthy dramas, which are classified as verismo, a style of realism that came into prominence when Wagner referenced it, muse on the more universal and primal downfalls of human nature, romanticized with folksy nostalgia, lyrical beauty and majestic orchestration. Though not executed with the poetic intricacy of Verdi and Puccini's masterpieces, they resonate with equal emotion and epic tragedy.
When introducing Opera Tampa's production, the mighty Dame Judith Lisi, Straz CEO and president of Opera Tampa, showed her softer side, expressing sweet, wistful gratitude to Maestro Coppola for his contribution to the local opera company over the past 15 years.
"While I am sad this is his final year with us, I am looking forward to what the maestro has in store for us this season," she said.
What's to come includes The Anton Coppola Fond Farewells Concert (Feb. 18-19), Jose Carreras (March 2) and Verdi's Aida (April 20 and 22).
Opera Tampa stages a final performance of Cavalleria rusticana and I Pagliacci at 2 p.m. tomorrow (Jan. 29) at the Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, downtown Tampa. $29.50-$89.50. 813-229-7827, strazcenter.org.