What’s this? Cav without Pag? Indeed. For one night only. However, one of the advantages of staging a stand-alone concert version of arguably the most famous of all musical Siamese twins is that it then emerges not as a mere prelude to something greater but as a finely-wrought representation of the power of Eros. Cavalleria rusticana is after all a superb piece of theatre in its own right. Already at its Rome premiere in 1890 this was a considerable achievement for the 26 year-old Mascagni, who had composed the work in a feverish burst of activity amounting to eight days. It helped launch the verismo movement in Italian opera, in which truth is presented as a slice of life. Just that. Kitchen sink drama came much, much later.

<i>Cavalleria rusticana</i> at the Jūrmala Festival © Pauls Zvirbulis
Cavalleria rusticana at the Jūrmala Festival
© Pauls Zvirbulis

In the case of Cav, George Bernard Shaw’s quip about the essentials of operatic drama comes to mind: tenor wants to mate with soprano but is thwarted by baritone. If only it were so simple. What Mascagni’s work shows is that human relationships once twisted out of joint have powerful consequences for all those involved. It is not only Santuzza who is wronged, Alfio is too as the cuckolded husband, and together with Turiddu, who both wants his cake and wants to eat it, as well as his mother Mamma Lucia are condemned to suffer. It is one of the sad ironies of the piece that the entire action happens on Easter Day: what should be a celebration of new life ends in death. Turiddu, whose name means “saviour”, ends up saving nobody.

This performance at the Jūrmala Festival was dealt one of fate’s cruel blows before it even began, as though one of Mascagni’s Sicilian curses lay over the work. The quite exceptional heat of the last few days in much of Europe led to severe traffic disruption in France so that one half of the Jūrmala Festival Choir was unable to return in time from previous engagements. I often think that a peasant chorus should sound a little rough-and-ready: these are ordinary people without the gloss of urbanity, and the rawness of their feelings should not disappear in a characterless blend. The 30-odd singers who were there coped admirably in the circumstances.

They and the Jūrmala Festival Orchestra had the benefit of being fired up by the conductor Vello Pähn, chief conductor of the Estonian National Opera, whose vast experience and assured touch ensured that the performance cohered as a whole. From the lyrical intensity of the Prelude through the fervour of the Easter Hymn to the final pages in which Alfio’s earlier demand – “I want blood!” – is translated into terrifying reality, this had waves of passionate Italian sentiment guaranteed to stir the soul. Even if the orchestra lacked that last degree of refinement and would undoubtedly have benefited from more rehearsal time, it all sounded suitably rustic and utterly authentic.

Aleksandrs Antonenko and Alisa Zinovejva © Pauls Zvirbulis
Aleksandrs Antonenko and Alisa Zinovejva
© Pauls Zvirbulis

And what of the cast? Latvia is justifiably proud of the contribution its singers are making on the international stage. Happily, there were no weak links. Aleksandrs Antoņenko was a charismatic and powerful presence: visually commanding in the sense that a mere raised eyebrow adds essential emphasis, vocally at the top of his game and with those ringing and honeyed Italianate tones which make you instantly believe in the hothead Turiddu at the mercy of his hormonal surges. Just occasionally the voice needed to be reined back a little more, especially in his exchanges with Santuzza. In the other male role Jānis Apeinis made an instant impression as Alfio: a vibrant, perfectly-focused and also richly-nuanced baritone.

On the distaff side we had Alisa Zinovjeva as Santuzza, a warmer, darker and earthier voice than you often hear in this role, coating some of her deeper notes in melted chocolate, and moving skilfully in her characterisation through the changing moods of all-consuming jealousy, remorse and desperation. She was a fine contrast with the Lola of Deniz Uzun, whose brightness of tone brought with it the right edge of nonchalance at the end of her coquettish song as she flings her “The Lord be with you, I’m going!” in the faces of Santuzza and Turiddu. Andžella Goba was a warmly supportive Mamma Lucia, distraught in the final exchange with her son when he begs her to be like a mother to Santuzza.

After the dying chords there was an almost shocked and extended silence from the audience. Was this all? Would there perhaps be a resurrection to underline the significance of the Easter message? But no, this crime passionnel could only end in purgatory for all.

****1