Muti Conducts Cavalleria Rusticana in Chicago

Otello, Macbeth, Falstaff, and Aida. These four operas of Giuseppe Verdi are the first four operas that Maestro Muti has led here, in Chicago, over the course of his now 10 years as music director of the CSO. And for the fifth? That would be Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, the third and last performance of which just concluded this past weekend. This opera-an approximate 75 minute work (one-act) of the verismo tradition-has everything a great opera needs: a complete synthesis of high drama and beautiful music. And what music it is, indeed. Filled with beautiful Sicilian folk melodies and swelling orchestral climaxes, all interwoven throughout various arias and choruses, the music in this opera is really some of the most brilliant music I’ve ever heard. People always talk about the famous intermezzo (probably because of its use in Raging Bull), but the rest of the opera is just as good, if not better. (Also, I’ve just come to realize that the opening of the intermezzo is the same opening of the “Regina coeli” chorus 😀 )

To convincingly pull off this extremely concise work, without falling on the verge of vulgarity or excessive melodrama, is, undoubtedly, no trivial task. And, of course, this is the foundational credo of Maestro Muti’s decades-long work in the interpretation of Italian opera, making the last week of studying and working through this opera one of the most memorable weeks I’ve ever had as a student here in Chicago. (It also makes me really consider going back to Ravenna in the summer…)

The cast put together for this opera was absolutely brilliant: 1) Anita Rachvelishvili as Santuzza, 2) Piero Pretti as Turiddu, 3) Luca Salsi as Alfio, 4) Ronnita Miller as Mamma Lucia, and 5) Sasha Cooke as Lola. Shoutout also goes to Alessandra Visconti, a fellow Northwestern-er (she’s on the faculty for the Italian department and a good friend of some of my former UChicago professors!). It’s sometimes hard to find voices that can fill up the entirety of Orchestra Hall, but I’d have to say that each and every member of this strong cast held his or her own, which made this concert just that much more exciting! After Rachvelishvili’s simply mind-blowing Amneris last season in , I was super excited to hear her Santuzza, which-just like her interpretation of Amneris-was completely filled with the dramatic sensitivity and explosiveness required to bring this victimized, tortured character to life. (Now, if Maestro Muti were ever to conduct Il Trovatore, she’d be the perfect Azucena :D) Anyways, it was incredible to see Maestro Muti draw out each and every word of the longing phrase “La tua Santuzza” from Rachvelishvili, as if he and her were both imploring each other to reach the emotional depths of this character. This was fundamental opera at its best, truly.

Pretti had a voice to match Rachvelishvili’s as well, especially in the dramatic love duet (which, in some sense, is quite reminiscent of the Act IV duet between Radames and Amneris), and his voice in the opening siciliana (“O Lola ch’hai di latti la cammisa or the brindisi (“Viva il vino spumeggiante”) or the finale (“Mamma, quel vino è generoso”) was a privilege to witness live. Even though Turiddu is a horrible character, you couldn’t help but feel sad that he had to die in the end because the music Mascagni wrote for his finale is just so heart-wrenching. (Side note: I had no idea that “Turiddu” is actually a derivative of the name “Salvatore”-specifically the “tore” part…definitely very helpful when Maestro Muti explains the southern Sicilian dialect components of the libretto.) Anyways, the performances this past week are really demonstrative of what makes opera the great art form that it is-and you honestly don’t need any staging, costumes, or production, which in most cases today, would probably just serve as a stupid distraction. Plus, there are very few times where you get to hear the chorus sing in full-force, such as in the final lines of the brindisi, with Maestro Muti masterfully controlling every single lilt in the rhythm. The only thing I could think of is the “Sanctus” section of the Verdi Requiem last season-you just never get to hear such grand music fully envelop each and every crevice of the hall like that. Absolutely incredible.

Well, that’s the recap for my first time back at Symphony Center in the new year 2020! Maestro Muti and the orchestra are off on a short tour in Florida this week, but they’ll be back the week after, which is when the Beethoven 250 celebrations will be continuing, with performances of Beethoven’s 2nd and 5th symphonies 😀 Plus, I’ll be headed back to Lyric to catch Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which will be the first time I’ll be seeing this opera live!

absolutely no one better to study Mascagni from than Maestro Muti!

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Claire Liu

I’m currently a graduate student at Northwestern University, working on developing bio-integrated electronics and microfluidics for health monitoring and pain therapeutic applications. I’m also an avid listener of classical music and am particularly interested in the musicology of 19th century Italian opera, especially those of Giuseppe Verdi. View all posts by Claire Liu

Originally published at on February 11, 2020.

PhD student at Northwestern working on bio-integrated devices for health applications. Also interested in 19th century Italian opera musicology.