Ham and Eggs Take a Holiday at the Opera

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At the opera, every day is a holiday. Or so it can seem if you are an audience member having a good time and not doing the work.

Today, August 15, is an actual holiday -- at least in Italy. It reminds me of operas in which holidays figure as part of the plot. The symbolism of those days can be a subtext in the story, as I will explain. At the very least, a holiday can present a composer with the opportunity to write festive music for chorus, orchestra, dancers and solo singers. Wagner had a knack for creating celebratory scenes in operas such as Rienzi, Tannhauser, Lohengrin and, especially, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, that feel like holiday festivities. Parsifal has very profound links to Good Friday and Easter, but it is a work unto itself and I will address it in the future.

Christmas time probably features in more operas than any other holiday, so I promise you a big article about that in December.

Today’s post is being written after a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs. In the opera business, many of its old-time workers refer to the pairing of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci as “Ham and Eggs” even if a larger public thinks of them as Cav/Pag. Perhaps the foodish nickname comes from the fact that ham and eggs are dependable and always please a large audience. They go down well and are substantial.

So today I will focus on the holidays connected to these two wonderful operas, both of which require a fair amount of ham on the part of the performers and quite a few eggs are broken. Both are one-act operas that were submitted to a competition in 1890 sponsored by Sonzogno, an important Italian music publisher that sought to develop new talent and repertory. The rule was the opera be in one act. The winner was Cavalleria Rusticana. Pagliacci was not disqualified even though it is made of two acts that run continuously from one to the next.

Pagliacci merits discussion first because it is set on August 15. This holiday is known as Ferragosto and, like many celebrations there, it has pagan (pre-Christian) origins on to which a religious holiday has been been superimposed. Christmas and Easter are other such festivities that predate the Catholic Church. Ferragosto, as a name, comes from Feriae Augusti, or Augustus’ Holiday. Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was the nephew and heir of Julius Caesar. 

At this time of the year, there would be more flexibility in the class structure among the slaves and nobles of Rome, a sort of easing of laws (though one cannot really say easing of morals in a society that was notoriously lascivious). Ferragosto was also something of a harvest festival, giving thanks for the fertility of the land. Ceres, a goddess associated with motherhood, fertility, agriculture and, especially, grain (her name gave us the word “cereal”) was venerated on this day. So too were other maternal figures.

When the Catholic Church established its main operations in Rome, it found a city full of randy, pagan, decadent (and, to my mind, quite appealing) people and many church laws and events were created in direct response to local ways. Ferragosto remained a day for veneration of motherhood and the female, but came to be called the Feast of the Assumption. This is the day, we are asked to suppose, when the Virgin Mary is transported (or "assumed") to heaven upon her death. So it is a day about the death of a noble woman.

In rural Calabria, where Pagliacci is set, August 15 is a rare day off for poor people who work seven days a week to have enough to live on. An itinerant troupe of commedia dell’arte players has arrived and announces that there will be a great show at 11 pm (un grande spettacolo a ventitre ore).

The entire town gathers in great anticipation and watches the clowns (pagliacci) act out a comedy about infidelity which, in fact, is what has been happening in real life as Canio, the lead actor, knows that his wife Nedda has been having an affair with Silvio, a younger and wealthy man. The audience onstage watches with excitement and then horror as reality merges with the story and comedy turns to tragedy as Canio kills Nedda and then Silvio. This story is based on actual events. Watch this great performance of the scene by Plácido Domingo and Teresa Stratas:

The connection between Ferragosto and Pagliacci is evident. A mixing of the classes, looser sexual mores, a festive occasion for the populace, and the veneration (and death) of a woman we care about.

An Easter Opera

By contrast, Cavalleria Rusticana is set at Easter (Pasqua, in Italian). In the pre-Christian era this was a pagan spring festival although for Jews it was Passover, a happy eight-day festival commemorating the escape of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. There are many ancient words that relate to this Jewish holiday, such as Pascha, Pasha, Paskha and Pesach and they seem to connect to the Italian phrase. In the Christian form, Good Friday is about the death of Christ and Easter Sunday celebrates his resurrection. 

In all of these cases, this spring holiday is about renewal, rebirth and, with these, fertility. A culinary symbol and talisman for many of these celebrations is the egg. Hence there is the Easter egg hunt, the prominence of the egg on the Passover table and --why not?-- the designation of ham and eggs for the Cav/Pag double bill.

Cavalleria Rusticana
won the Sonzogno competition. It is was based on a story by the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga that later became a play. There are at least three versions of the opera. There is the famous Leoncavallo version. Another entrant in the competition was the same story, set to music by Stanislao Gastaldon that was called Mala Pasqua!, which can be translated as either “Evil Easter!” or, I think, is what one wronged character wishes on another and her curse is fulfilled. Either way, the Gastaldon version was said to have merits but has vanished because it did not win. Another version, also called Cavalleria Rusticana, was written by Domenico Monleone in 1907, but is never done. I would love to see a company use the same set but stage all three operas.

I think the Leoncavallo version is one of the few operas that can be called perfect. Set on Easter Sunday, it tells the story of Santuzza (whose name can roughly be translated as Saint Gone Wrong), a widow who was seduced and abandoned by Turiddu after his affair with the younger Lola ended when she married the carter Alfio. Lola in turn is jealous of Santuzza and resumes her affair with Turiddu. We, and a lot of the village women, know that Santuzza is pregnant by Turiddu.

So does Mamma Lucia, who runs a tavern that serves strong wine. She is sympathetic to Santuzza but is, first and foremost, Turiddu's protective and worrying mother. Santuzza is excommunicated and cannot enter the church on Easter Sunday. Turiddu, Lola and the other characters all can worship, despite the sins they are committing. What is palpable in this opera are the rhythms of life and death and the strong role of religion in this community. They speak in local dialect. I often think of this work in relation to Porgy and Bess, which has many similar themes.

One of the best choral works in all of opera is the procession into the church in which Santuzza must remain outside. She too sings in praise of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here are two versions of “Inneggiamo al Signor” to give you some of the flavor of the opera. The first stars the powerful Italian mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto:

The second has the glorious Tatiana Troyanos from 1978. This was early in her Met career and she was revealing herself as a singer and actress who gave 110% and always found ways to add searing drama to her roles without overacting.

And now, dear reader, more ham for your eggs. When I teach opera and show different interpretations of the same role, it is called comparative listening and is very useful. But what follows is a guilty pleasure of the type real opera lovers engage in. Take an indelible moment, as when Santuzza warns Turiddu that Alfio has learned of the affair with Lola and plans to kill him. Santuzza tells Turiddu to leave town, but he curses a blue streak to her in Sicilian dialect. She then puts a curse on him “A te, la mala Pasqua!!!!!” and we know what will happen. So does she. Here, then, is a compilation for your viewing pleasure.

I think I have correctly identified most of the Santuzzas:

  1. I do not know...all help will be appreciated
  2. Giulietta Simionato, doing a very Sicilian version
  3. This might be Simionato again?
  4. Fiorenza Cossotto, acting with her eyes
  5. Tatiana Troyanos, the only one who gives us a sense that Santuzza is pregnant with Turiddu’s child
  6. Shirley Verrett, acting effectively with her back mostly to the audience
  7. The sexy Russian Elena Obratzsova
  8. Waltraud Meier, giving her own spin to the part
  9. Violeta Urmana, who makes Santuzza seem stronger

Which ones were you favorites, and why? Please comment below. For you I wish, A te, un buon Ferragosto!!!!!!!!!