Thursday, January 08, 2009

"Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Pagliacci": how opera has already covered "novel" legal problems now on the Internet


Deutsch Grammophon (with Netflix) offers a DVD of the 1982 film versions, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, of the “Cav and Pag” short operas, often put on together. Both operas, in verismo style, despite their presumed ageless popularity, have been associated with legal controversies that are relevant today as novel problems surface with the Internet. Both films are produced by an Italian company named Unitel.

The first opera is Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (“Rustic Calvalry”). The libretto is by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci, adapted from a play by Giovanni Verga based on his own short story. Mascagni composed the opera for a “Project Greenlight” style competition for new composers. The cast uses opera singers Plácido Domingo as Turiddu, Yelena Obraztsova as Santuzza, Renato Bruson as Alfio and Fedora Barbieri as Lucia. .The conductor is Georges Pretre with the La Scala orchestra and chorus. It premiered in 1890. Musically, it sounds a bit the lusher of the two, with its famous chromatic intermezzo (used in “Raging Bull” and “Godfather III”) with typical Italian stepwise modulations. Most of the film (70 minutes) occurs outdoors in lush green countryside (I had thought that Sicily was dry), and there is a compelling Catholic pageant scene with stirring chorus.

I recall, on Wednesday afternoon “class” in the home basement of my piano teacher in the early and mid 1950s, that the Intermezzo was one of the pieces she would play (on an old 78 shellac recording) in teaching repertoire. As kids, we barely understood the point of tragedy, and of the numerous jealousies and infidelities in the plots of operas like this. The story, somewhat like a modern soap opera, starts as Turiddu returns from military service (relevant to complicated 19th Century Italian history) and becomes involved in a rather bizarre love triangle (some of it of his making) based on jealousy because his fiancée had married in his absence. That’s compelling enough today – men go to war, and lose everything at home, and make it worse when they come back. The ending is violent and tragic enough, suitable for loud minor chords.

The legal controversy comes from the fact that composer Domenico Monleone wrote another opera by the same name in 1907, based on the same material, for another competition. The second opera would have a successful European tour but be banned from Italy after legal action, probably out of turf protection. In the United States, there could not have been an infringement claim based on the first opera, although copyright law with derivative works can get tricky.

The second opera, not quite as appealing to me musically, is the more interesting conceptually. That’s "Pagliacci" (or “performers” or “clowns”; you don't need the article "I"), by Ruggero Leoncavallo. The cast in this performance includes Plácido Domingo, Teresa Stratas, and
Juan Pons, Leoncavallo was apparently inspired by the idea that a short opera can be successful from Mascagni’s success.

The film treatment has to mix "fiction" (the comedy club troupe) with "reality" and generally looks leaner than the other film. There is a bit of squalor in the outdoor scenes. There is one curious nude shot of a minor.

The concept of the story probably centers on the famous aria “Vesti la Giubba”, or “Put on the Costume” (because “the show must go on”). Piano students all learn the transcription of the e-minor aria as a way of getting used to bass melodies and the effectiveness of minor keys with adventurous modulations. (Elsewhere the music has a tendency to a lot of repeated figures, as in the clown scenes.) But the moral question of the story is, if you act out a part, will people believe you are the character, if you really are somebody else? Is that the “actor’s dilemma?” Not today, because it is part of actor professionalism. I remember in seventh grade feeling sensitive about putting makeup on my body to be in the innocent musical (Morgan-Johnson’s) “The Sunbonnet Girl”. But these kinds of questions has come up before, such as with the film “The Kite Runner,” of which Paramount delayed the release because of fears of how the film would be taken given the culture in Afghanistan. In the opera, the “clown” (Canio) is perceived as a tolerant and lax (perhaps foolish) husband, whereas in his personal life he is very jealous. This leads to the tragic and violent “minor key” conclusion of the opera, where the stage play and real life mix. (You know that this will be the theme of the opera when it opens with the clownish stage act. The use of clowns and other art as moral symbols seems to have become important in Italy, prior to the rise of fascism.)

Of course, the opera deals with the question of resembling a character that one acts. There can also occur the problem of a character in a work of fiction resembling a real character, perhaps oneself, and the work’s being taken by others as an indication of what the author has the propensity to actually do at some unspecified time in the future. That has happened to me before (it forms a lot of the substance of the “don’t ask don’t tell” problem, including gays in the military).

Of course, Shakespeare had tried the concept of mixing fiction with reality with the "play within a play" concept in the early part of "Hamlet."

Brett Neveu has a play "Harmless" about a modern setting of this issue (see my main blog Jan. 6 2009). I may try to see it and review here later.

Leoncavallo was actually accused of “copyright infringement” for “plagiarizing” play of Catulle Mendès , "La Femme de Tabarin", which Leoncavallo probably say in Paris in 1887. But Leoncavallo insists that he actually witnessed an incident like this in real life in Italy, when a servant took him to a comedy performance like this.

We think all of our labyrinthine political and legal controversies today (as with the Internet) are new, but sometimes opera shows us that they are rehearings of old problems.

Netflix says that the DVD takes 60 minutes. Actually, it takes 142 minutes: the two films run 70 and 72 minutes, respectively.

Picture: “The Golden Calf”. I have Arnold Schoenberg’s “Moses and Aaron” on order for review later.

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