Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Long Way From Sicily

In my early teens I discovered an old 45 record in my parents' collection. It was "Voi lo sapete O Mamma" from Mascagni's opera, Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry). It was sung by Maria Callas and there was a very glamorous black and white photograph of her on the small record sleeve. I put it on their record-player and listened, transfixed, to this live recording, one that made every hair on my head stand up in a sort of horrified ecstacy. There was such anguish, her voice like an open wound. I had to discover more and so I did.

Set in a Sicilian village in the 19th century, Cavalleria’s title is a melancholy irony, referring to the bloodthirsty defence of honour that takes place during this one-act opera. It’s Easter Sunday in the heat and dust of the village and – amid preparations for the religious celebrations – a love quartet plays out its jealousies and complications to a gruesome end. Santuzza, a local woman, has been loved and abandoned. In “Voi lo sapete”, she confides her story to Mamma Lucia, the mother of her ex-lover.

Callas holds nothing back, and her character’s pain comes through with every note. For me she belongs in a very small group of artists that also include Janice Joplin and Billy Holiday. As a teenager, the music of these three women (and some heavy guitar rock) was the only thing that really expressed that occasional emotional rollercoaster I rode those years.

Cavalleria is divided into two dramatic scenes, and between them you have the Intermezzo. This starts quietly, but is full of passionate fatalism. You can feel the sun on you, and the heat under your feet. There was a televised concert from High Park in London a few years ago… not my bag usually, but I watched, as thousands of Londoners braved the cold drizzle for the free performance. When the Intermezzo played, the cameras left the stage (the orchestra alone not being camera-worthy I guess!) and panned over the audience. At one point, it settled on a group of people, burrowing into their rain jackets, their umbrellas (if they had them) aloft. Slowly, one by one, they began to realize that they were being filmed. Their pale, wet faces lit up, they began to wave. Slowly it spread, and as that beautiful, yearning music built to its lusty climax, so the drenched, happy Londoners waved at the camera, to us all around the world. It was such a wonderful moment… I hardly know why.

Last week I bought a new CD, the full length Cavalleria Rusticana, a live recording from 1953, and gave it to my mother. My parents both recognized the recording and put it on to listen to the first few minutes. An hour later, we were all still sitting there, dinner postponed, listening transfixed to that incredible live performance with Callas in her prime, Tullio Serafin on the podium leading the La Scala Orchestra and Chorus, with Giuseppe di Stefano, Rolando Panerai, Ebe Ticozzi, and Anna Maria Canali rounding out the cast.

That’s the power of music I guess: a wet London summer and a cool Canadian spring transformed by the blood-soaked sand of Sicily.


Bill Stankus said...

Nicely done.

david mcmahon said...

My father loved music and he had many Maria Callas records in his amazing collection.

I accept your salutation ``O Lensed One'' with equal part glee and humility!!

glamah16 said...

Where were you when I first started going to Opera and trying to figure it out? I always had boring pompus know it alls lecturing at me! Your a delight. One of the few Opera CD's I have is of Callas performing Norma live. It was recorded in Rome in 1955.Calls was amazing and there will never be another one like her.

glamah16 said...

Oh BTW, let me know when you come to Chicago in the fall. I didnt suscribe this year, but if you want to see a production let me know.We are going to purchase tix individually as CS gest special rates through his company.

R.A.D. Stainforth said...

I like the comment Callas was supposed to have made when she turned down the lead rôle down in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. The puzzled Callas supposedly asked later, “How can I possibly sing a rôle that begins with the words ‘too many sauces’?”

Callas suggested some well-known opera could be cut, and was asked which part she would shorten, to which she replied “The baritone’s”. She was as witty as her New York upbringing implies.

willow said...

Very nice post, BPG! Yes, Callas certainly is a legend, isn't she? Back when my daughter was in college, she had a poster of a very "possessed" looking Callas, which I always thought was so scary. She did hauntingly embody her characters.

Bachelor said...

Oh my! ... thanks for sharing these opera experiences. I am moved with emotion every time I hear Pavarotti sing Recitar from Leoncavallo Pagliacci. Another fav of mine is Bryn Terfel. Man, what a voice. I would probably be lost without my love of music.
A great post!

Blog Princess G said...

She was a fascinating artist, and had many detractors... but I'm an impassioned fan.

Coco! I'm going to check your blog for an email address, but mine is on my profile if you want to compare dates. :)