ΝΕW YORK CONCERT REVIEW INC CULTURAL CENTRE OF THE REGIONAL GOVERNMENT OF CENTRAL MACEDONIA PRESENTS “CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA” BY PIETRO MASCAGNI IN REVIEW
Cultural Centre of the Regional Government of Central Macedonia presents “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni in Review
CAVALLERI RUSTICANA, HEPTAPYRGION FORTRESS, THESSALONIKI, GREECE
JULY 12, 2019
A taxi took us from our hotel near the sea up into the hills above the city of Thessaloniki. As we drove higher and higher above the town, my wife and I mused about the performance we were about to attend. In what kind of space would it take place, what would be the quality of the singers, how would they be accompanied – a piano, or possibly two, or even an orchestra? We really didn’t know what to expect.
We finally stopped in front of the Heptapygrion (Seven Tower) Fortress, parts of which were built in late Classical times. Its present form dates from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. It served as the major fortification of Thessaloniki’s acropolis, as well as the seat of the garrison commander in Ottoman times. In the late 19th century, about 60 years after the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence and while Thessaloniki was still under the Ottoman occupation, it was converted to a prison which remained open until 1989. The site was then taken over by the Ministry of Culture and the regional Byzantine Archaeology Service, which moved some of its offices there. Systematic archaeological study and restoration began in 1990. This is the first year of the Heptapygrion Festival, which ran from July 2nd to July 22nd.
After passing through the site’s monumental gate, we were directed to the old prison’s courtyard. The performance would take place out of doors! (I must admit that because of less than optimal acoustics, I am not a great fan of outdoor opera performances.) But I was very happy to see a full-sized orchestra seated in front of me and behind it a lovely set featuring a staircase to the entrance of a church one might find in a small Sicilian village. This was much more realistic than the massive “Cecil B. DeMille” staircases one finds in major operas house productions. The visible wings on both sides of the stage, from which entrances and exits would take place, wrapped around both sides of the audience.
The State Orchestra of Thessaloniki tuned up (I do love that sound) and the conductor, Zoe Tsokanou, made her entrance. After a few moments of the opera’s prelude it was clear that the State Orchestra of Thessaloniki was a first-rate ensemble. Ms. Tsokanou drew from them beautiful well phrased playing with her graceful, concise and clear conducting. And the sound we heard belied the fact that we were out of doors. The acoustics were wonderful. Would the same be true for the voices? I awaited the tenor’s offstage serenade with eager anticipation.
I was not disappointed. Dario Di Vetri’s plangent tones reverberated off of the fortress’s stone walls to great effect. This is a true Italianate tenor voice with the thrilling “squillo” of the upper register. Usually I find it takes this opera a long time to “get off the ground,” but this atmospheric outdoor setting made the time before any major on-stage-singing seem to go by quite quickly. When the other soloists finally got on stage, they followed suit in vocal and dramatic ability.
Eleni Calenos was a lovely and compelling Santuzza, winning the audience over with her beauty of tone and committed performance, Maria Vlachopoulou possessed the perfect Mama Lucia voice –deep, rich and, velvety. As Lola, Violetta Lousta’s seductive singing illuminated the irresistible hold she had on Turiddu, and Giannis Selitsaniotis as Alfio was simply magnificent –his is a huge and gorgeous voice. The opera’s sixth character, the Sicilian village’s townspeople, was brilliantly portrayed by the Mixed Choir of Thessaloniki. Prepared by director Mary Konstantinidou, the choir produced a glorious sound and moved about the stage in a natural and realistic way.
But there is one more person worthy of special kudos, the stage director Athanasios Kolalas. (Although what follows is a very long paragraph, I beg the reader’s indulgence.) Not only was M. Kolasas responsible for the fine costumes and the aforementioned lovely set, his decisions with respect to the drama helped make this the special performance it was. One decision gave shape to the entire drama. During the central scene at the church, a procession was headed by men carrying an icon of the suffering Virgin Mary. This foretold the suffering of the grieving Santuzza and Mamma Lucia after the murder of Turiddu by Alfio. Another directorial decision, and the one that impressed me the most, was a wonderful “coup de théâtre” which made clear a turning point in the drama that I had always found somewhat puzzling. After the church scene Turiddu and Santuzza quarrel in a duet in which she pleads with him to stay with her forever and love her again, while he tells her to just leave him alone. He finally loses his temper and throws her down to the ground. As he goes to the church, she hurls a curse at him and sobs. Alfio enters. We know she is desolate and angry, but was this enough to have her tell Alfio about his wife Lola’s affair with Turiddu, knowing that this would inflame him, thereby sentencing Turiddu to death at Alfio’s hand. In this production, when Turiddu throws Santuzza to the ground, she crashes into a chair. She clutches her belly as she gets up. We see blood on her dress. She lifts her dress and we see more blood. She was pregnant and the fall has caused a miscarriage. She is insane with grief. Betrayal and the loss of love were bad enough, but the loss of her child was the breaking point. Although I usually don’t approve of stage directors making such changes, this time I found Mr. Kolasas’s decision revelatory.
I hope I have made it clear that this was a performance worthy of any of the world’s major opera companies. It has been a pleasure to be able to praise each of the five soloists, the orchestra and its conductor, the chorus and its director, the performance venue and its acoustics. Thanks to the Cultural Centre of the Regional Government of Macedonia for presenting the first Heptapyrgion Festival and I wish the festival continued success in the years following.