CSO, Riccardo Muti, soloists triumph in superb concert staging of ‘Cavalleria rusticana’

As pivotal as the singing was, it was just one of the many highlights in what was an utterly superlative offering in every way.

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                                                                                                                                                                   Tenor Piero Pretti (left) and mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili (right) perform the roles of Turiddu and Santuzza respectively in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of Cavalleria rusticana at Symphony Center on February 6, 2020.

Tenor Piero Pretti (left) and mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili perform the roles of Turiddu and Santuzza, respectively, in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of “Cavalleria rusticana” Thursday night at Symphony Center.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Moving, heart-wrenching and intense. Anita Rachvelishvili was all that and more Thursday evening in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert realization of Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera, “Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry).”

The Georgian-born mezzo-soprano squeezed meaning and feeling out of every bar, every note, delivering a riveting performance — one that went far in explaining why she is fast becoming one of the opera world’s biggest stars.

‘Cavalleria rusticana’

Untitled

Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Riccardo Muti, conductor

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 7 and 8

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $36-$223

Info: cso.org

But as pivotal as her singing was, it was just one of the many highlights in what was an utterly superlative offering in every way.

“Cavalleria rusticana” became an immediate sensation when it debuted in Rome in 1890. It very quickly circulated around the world, including a performance just a year later at the Auditorium Theatre with the then-nascent Chicago Symphony in the pit.

Although the then-26-year-old Mascagni went on to write more than a dozen other operas, a few of which are occasionally staged, it is this gripping tale of jealousy and revenge in a tiny Sicilian village that has assured the Italian composer lasting fame.

Not having the showy sets and costumes that a staged production can offer might seem like a big negative. But it actually becomes a positive, because this approach allows listeners to zero in on the voices and especially the orchestra, which is typically hidden away in the pit.

Riccardo Muti has made such concert operas a welcome staple of his music directorship, and by any measure, this 80-minute presentation would have to be counted among the most memorable. There is much to praise.

Start with the conductor’s unerring precision, finesse and attention to details like the perfectly calibrated dynamics of the chorus as the villagers leave Easter Mass — hushed but infused with joy. And add the beautiful, plush sound he drew from the orchestra again and again, reveling in Mascagni’s rich melodies and harmonies.

Music Director Riccardo Muti (center), Chorus Director Duain Wolfe, the cast of soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus bow after performing Cavalleria rusticana at Symphony Center on February 6, 2020. 

Music Director Riccardo Muti (center), Chorus Director Duain Wolfe, the cast of soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus take their bows Thursday night after performing “Cavalleria rusticana” at Symphony Center.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Perhaps most important is Muti’s innate feel for opera, which could be heard here in deft pacing that drew the maximum drama from this work and his ability to subtly breathe with the singers. It also doesn’t hurt that he is Italian and clearly possesses an instinctive understanding of this music.

That was evident right from the opening — the honest and authentic way in which he embraced the folk flavorings in the scene-setting Prelude and the comfortably bright and sprightly feel that he brought to the introductory chorus.

And, not to be forgotten was the opera’s famous Intermezzo, which is often excerpted and performed on its own. Muti and the orchestra offered a suitably serene and meditative take on this unexpected and highly effective break in the action.

As one would expect from one of the leading opera conductors in the world, the five soloists were all first rate, starting, as noted, with Rachvelishvili, who portrays Santuzza, who has been shunned by the fickle Turiddu. The mezzo-soprano has it all — abundant power, ceaseless expressiveness and a fetching dark-hued vocal timbre.

Matching her almost note for note was tenor Piero Pretti, who could hardly have seemed more at home in this role as he made his Chicago Symphony debut. He had high points aplenty from something as simple as his distinctively telling iterations of the final “Ah!” in his opening ode to his other lover, Lola, to his plaintive farewell later to his mother, Lucia, as he leaves to fight a duel with Lola’s husband, Alfio.

With rat-a-tat retorts and emotions that boil over, Pretti and Rachvelishvili made sure that the confrontation between Santuzza and Turiddu was every bit the climactic moment that it should be. Rachvelishvili ended the exchange with a dagger-like verbal thrust, “May your Easter be cursed, your traitor!”

Mezzo-sopranos Sasha Cooke (as Lola) and Ronnita Miller (as Lucia) showed themselves to be fine all-around singers who made the most of their smaller yet integral roles, whetting the appetite to hear more from them. And rounding out the cast, baritone Luca Salsi more than held his own as Alfio.

Like everything else in this opera, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, prepared by director Duain Wolfe, was outstanding from the lightness and buoyancy of its singing in the introductory chorus to the purity and grace it mustered in an Easter hymn that is heard from inside the village church.

The city already has one world-class opera company in Lyric Opera of Chicago. But during the short run of “Cavalleria rusticana,” the Chicago Symphony is temporarily taking its place right alongside.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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