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Reviewed by:
  • Cavalleria rusticana
  • Robert Baxter (bio)
Cavalleria rusticana. Pietro Mascagni

Karsten Steiger lists more than fifty recordings of Cavalleria rusticana in his comprehensive survey of operatic recordings.1 Do we need another recording of Mascagni's verismo classic? Myto answers that question with not one but two live recordings from Munich and Buenos Aires. The reason for these CD releases can be found in the portraits of Astrid Varnay and Grace Bumbry adorning the covers of Myto's jewel cases. The Italian label is banking on the hope that fans of both singers will want to hear them in a live recording of an opera neither recorded commercially. These Cavallerias also offer contrasting interpretations of Mascagni's opera. The 1954 Munich version commemorates a German studio performance, meticulously prepared and textually complete. The 1968 Buenos Aires recording features a vividly sung stage performance, undercut by sonic imbalances, theatrical cuts, and the extraneous sounds that typically obtrude on a live recording, from outbursts of applause to the clomp of the singers' feet crossing the stage.

The Sawallisch recording should be called Sizilianische Bauernehre. Sung in German, the performance features a cast headed by Varnay and Hans Hopf, two huge-voiced singers cast from a heroic mold. This Santuzza and Turiddu sound as if Brünnhilde and Siegfried have abandoned Valhalla for a vacation in Sicily. Sawallisch leads his musicians through a carefully prepared, scrupulously nuanced reading of Mascagni's opera. Summoning disciplined playing and full-throated singing from the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus, the conductor moves swiftly but urgently through the score. His beat is firm and his voicing of the music neatly judged. [End Page 205]

Varnay and Hopf seize attention with the scale and impact of their singing. In sure command of her big voice, Varnay sings with nuance as well as power. She floats an arresting soft high G at her first entrance and throughout displays the combination of keen musicianship and dramatic conviction that won her praise in the German repertory. Varnay's voice rings out with authority on top and plunges effortlessly to massive low notes without a break between those register extremes. When she opens up the vocal floodgates, Varnay's soprano streams out powerfully.

In the duet between Santuzza and Turridu, Varnay and Hopf turn the Sicilian peasants into epic characters. At the climax of the duet, their high B-flats convulse the audience with their heroic size. Varnay delivers the curse with the intensity of a Brünnhilde swearing her oath on the tip of Hagen's spear. By the 1960s, after his concentration on Heldentenor roles, Hopf's tenor had become leathery and intractable, but in 1954 he still commanded a malleable voice capable of some dynamic and tonal shading. His singing may not be as elegantly turned and musically astute as the soprano's but, like Varnay, he makes a big effect. Hopf voices the Brindisi vividly, underpinned by the Germanic precision and Italianate swagger of Sawallisch's conducting.

The soprano and tenor dominate this performance, but American baritone James Pease contributes a solid Alfio. Sawallisch launches the cuckolded carrier's entrance aria with a propulsive beat. Pease's baritone wavers a bit on top notes, but he brings vigorous attack and generous sound to Alfio's music. Minor roles are capably, if unmemorably, taken by Hanna Scholl (Lola) and Hanne Münch (Mamma Lucia).

The strengths of this Cavalleria are the Santuzza and conductor. Sawallisch crafts a restrained account of the Intermezzo and infuses the choral singing with a lightness and elegance missed in many performances. In the finale, he wraps Hopf 's farewell to his mother in shimmering strings that suggest the bubbling sound of an uncorked wine bottle. Varnay's Santuzza may be vocally weighty but never ponderous. She captures the character's anguish and emits a fine, if not very full, high C after the death of Turiddu.

The Buenos Aires Cavalleria has the vital feel of a stage performance that is missing from the Munich studio recording. Though Juan Emilio Martini presides over a strong cast headed by Bumbry and Carlo Bergonzi, he does not command his chorus and orchestra with the authority...


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