After having been swept up by Virginia Opera‘s double-bill of the verismo one act opera twins, Cavalleria Rusticanna and I Pagliacci, I can see why most opera houses traditionally have staged them together. With a little inventive tinkering, the same set and the same costumes can be used for both operas. So can the chorus and even many of the soloists. According to David Ewen, in Encyclopedia of the Opera, verismo was “a naturalistic movement in Italian opera… that emphasi(zed)… librettos with everyday characters and situations.” This was a marked departure from operas based on great historical or mythical plots.

Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) (1890), by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), launched the verismo movement in Italian opera. It began as a short story by Giovanni Varga which was made into a successful play. The libretto, by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci is one the best ever made, and Mascagni’s beautiful and succinct score reinforces the red-blooded intensity in every bar. The story, set in a Sicilian village, is the old fatal three-sided love triangle and its murderous conclusion. While Turiddu was away in the army, his fiancée Lola married Alfio, the village teamster. When the young soldier returned, he tried to forget Lola by seducing a girl in the village, Santuzza. Lola, the village slut, easily renewed her relationship with Turiddu while Alfio was making his rounds between villages. Over the course of the one act opera, the now-pregnant Santuzza reproaches Turiddu and tries to shame him into returning to her. Spurned, she tells Alfio, who challenges and kills Turiddu in a duel. Mascagni composed some fifteen further operas, all long since vanished from the repertoire — none came close to his first opera’s success.

Such, too, was the fate of composer Ruggerio Leoncavallo’s (1858-1919) career. His third opera, I Pagliacci (sometimes called The Strolling Players) (1892), is set during the Feast of the Assumption around 1865-70 in Montalto, in Calabria, Italy. In Part I, Canio’s troupe of players arrive in town and prepare to put on a commedia dell’arte play with the stock characters of the clowns Taddeo and Pagliaccio, his fickle wife Columbine, and her lover Harlequin. While most of the men of the troupe are away drinking with the villagers, Canio’s wife Nedda reflects on how free the birds are, forcefully rejects the advances of the hump-backed Tonio, and is reunited with her lover Silvio. Tonio leads Canio back in time to see the lovers. During Part II, set at the evening performance, Canio’s self-control disintegrates over the course of the play within the play, ending with his murder of both lovers.

Two star male singers, tenor Gustavo López Manzitti and baritone Andrew Oakden, did double-duty, singing lead roles in both operas. Manzitti, born in Buenos-Aires, Argentina, has been a leading tenor in the Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires. His depth of experience was reflected in his astute husbanding of his voice, carefully gauging dynamics and timbre and precisely placing climaxes. His tone was wonderfully Italianate with a fine ring to it. He embodied two strongly contrasted characters, that of Turridu, with an ambivalent mix of passion and guilt, torn between Lola and Santuzza, and that of Canio, whose good nature is a thin veneer over raw jealousy from the beginning. Manzitti’s portrayal of Canio’s descent into murderous rage was totally convincing, the perfect blend of singing and acting.

Baritone Oakden matched Manzitti’s standard, blending the joyful teamster and the raging, vengeful husband as Alfio in Cavalleria. In a sense, he played two roles in I Pagliacci — appearing as the Prologue, he was an actor having make-up applied, and in the opera, as Tonio, he lurched about as a hunchbacked clown. His baritone is wonderfully dark, resonant and warm. He had plenty of vocal heft to fill the hall with Alfio’s rage. He fully brought out Tonio’s chameleon-like ambiguity, initially seeming to be a tender soul trapped in a deformed body as he attempts to make love to Nedda and instantly revealing his malignant temperament when she spurns him.

In Cavalleria Rusticana, mezzo-soprano Jane Dutton sang the role of Santuzza with a powerful voice that easily filled the house at full-throttle but was expressively flexible as she sensitively adjusted dynamics and timbre. Her acting fully revealed the shattered victim of Turiddu’s callous affair as she shamefully lurked at the edges of village society or pleaded with Turiddu’s mother, Lucia, or Alfio. The confrontation scene with Turiddu had searing intensity.

Each time soprano Cristina Nassif brings another character fully to life onstage Violetta in 2005, Carmen in 2006 she sets the performance bar higher than any other singer I have heard in that role. In an age when many opera lovers insist upon physical verisimilitude (the fat lady’s out), Nassif is drop-dead gorgeous and as lithe as a gymnast. Add to that her possession of a powerful voice that sends shivers down the spine at climaxes or melts the heart during hushed passages. Her high notes are pitched perfectly and fast passages are cleanly executed while her warm timbre is instantly winning. All of this is coupled with a breath-taking facility for acting. When on stage, she is in character every instant, with every movement or facial expression. This was the case as she embodied Nedda in I Pagliacci. She physically glowed as she sang “Oh! Che volo d’augelli” (“Ah, ye beautiful song-birds”). Maybe subtle lighting enhanced the effect, but I prefer to believe she was radiant. She brought the same intensity to her role as Columbine in the play-within-a-play. It was amazing to watch as Nassif transitioned back and forth between Nedda and Columbine,desperately trying to continue the play as Canio became increasingly mad with rage. Her singing was simply stunning.

It is said there are no small roles, only small actors. Both operas were strongly cast with solid turns by everyone. In Cavalleria, the role of Lola seems small on paper since she has relatively little to sing; most of the time she is either standing around or walking to church. Either mezzo-soprano Kristin Rothfuss or her director must have studied old Mae West films! Every moment she was visible on stage she oozed torrid sensuality. Her slow saunter to the chapel was as sexy as the famous car wash scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke, no mean achievement without water. Her brief singing was excellent and her dusky tone made a fine foil to Santuzza. Mezzo-soprano Geneviève Després managed to portray a far older woman in the role of Mamma Lucia, and the weight of her tone enhanced the effect.

In I Pagliacci, tenor Zachary Strains’ warm and pleasing timbre and fine acting made for a memorable Beppe. Silvio was strongly portrayed by baritone Michael Todd, with intensely involved acting and a darkly resonant voice. He brought a great deal of stage presence to the role. Both are most promising singer-actors.

No small part of the success of these two operas is due to stage direction of Lorna Haywood, who found telling small details that added up to wholly convincing dramas within traditional period approaches. Every bit of stage business contributed to building the intensity of the opera. The curtain fell on a scene of high drama: the dead Turiddu sprawled on a table being mourned while Alfio, switchblade in hand, disappeared off stage, chasing Lola with murderous intent. The sets, designed by Ron Keller, were effective and readily modified for the two operas. Lighting Designer Kenneth Steadman’s work was up to Virginia Opera’s usual high standards. The suggestion of the passing of time by the shifting of shadows was effective.

Peter Mark directed searing performances using members of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. There was tight ensemble between the pit and the stage, and the strings, brass, and winds were kept neatly balanced. Mark brought out all the poetry in the famous interludes. Some of the detailed fast playing of the violins in the Mascagni reminded me of the quicksilver writing of Mendelssohn. The many heart-throbbing passages for the cello section were led by Neal Cary, familiar to Triad audiences as the principal cellist of the Eastern Music Festival’s professional orchestra. The adult and children’s choruses were well prepared by Joseph Walsh.

Edited/corrected 3/31/07.