CD Review: Pentatone’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’

Marek Janowski Shines In Otherwise Disappointing Recording

By Bob Dieschburg

No doubt the legacy of “Cavalleria Rusticana” is reaching far back into the history of recording; from the 1909 version of the Odeon Orchestra to the milestones of the LP era. Its prominence has not even slowed with the advent of the compact disc or indeed the reprinting of forgotten lore, including the 1938 performance of Lina Bruna Rasa.

One can easily speak of a Mascagnian paradox. For with the exception of “L’Amico Fritz,” none of his other operas have enjoyed much of a posterity and the release of two “Cavallerias” within the first quarter of the year certainly exacerbates this imbalance.

While the Graz production won critical acclaim mainly thanks to its soloists, the Pentatone release has yet to prove its merits which, apart from Janowski and the sumptuous playing of his orchestra, are relatively few.

It asserts its strength in the novel conducting of the Polish-German maestro, but disappoints in nearly everywhere else, making this “Cavalleria” a footnote in the opera’s discographic career.

Prismatic Conducting

As gatekeeper to the German symphonic tradition, Marek Janowski has rarely ventured into the operatic repertoire. The music of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, and Brahms have made his reputation on the concert stage and yet it is his plunge into the aesthetic orbit of Wagner that aficionados may cherish most.

Unforgotten is his Dresden “Ring” whose success the conductor aimed to repeat in a 2012/13 series of live performances. Equally memorable, in their own rights, are his “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin,” which are so far from the Sicilian decorum of Verga and Mascagni.

That is not to say that a distinguished hand like Janowski’s cannot jump into the mainland of Italian verismo; and indeed his digression is a virtuosic one, building on both the descriptive riches and expressiveness of the Dresdener Philharmonie.

He pays marvelous attention to the texture of a score that has, in the past, lent itself rather easily to the ideologies of its respective interpreters and what Janowski achieves is a cohesive vision that – unlike Pentatone’s advertisement as symphonic – should rather be termed prismatic.

For the conductor does not adopt the universalist approach of Karajan weaving the drama into an overarching perspective of orchestral unity; he prefers the cumulative effect of individually tinted pieces in what is ultimately a late 19th century “Nummernoper.”

Hence the unusually brisk transition between scenes and the accelerated tempi of most arias and even the “Brindisi,” as Janowski is putting its chromatic and dynamic shifts on par with the theatricality of the narration.



An Improbable Turiddu…

As capricious as the tempi may seem, the result is a tense variation on a known classic that makes one wish for a less strained cast. None of the protagonists display the psychological insight so paramount in making the plot overcome its own stereotypes.

On the contrary, poor phrasing and the occasional lapse into vocal exhibitionism only support the still vigorous misconception of “Cavalleria” as a verismo shocker par excellence. Whether these shortcomings point towards the discomfort of a concertante environment or some other ill preparedness I cannot tell.

Fact is, there is little to cherish in what remains a frustrating accumulation of vocal mishaps; and while present all along, they seem to hamper the tenor, Brian Jagde, most, as he seldom manages to imbue the tortured lover with anything else than a perpetual forte.

There is indeed no hint of dynamic variation and the low-larynx technique, suboptimal for the higher tessitura of Mascagni’s writing, takes its toll on some ill-centered notes and their growing vibrato when sustained at the end of a phrase such as in the “Siciliana.”

This also strips the American singer of his expressive palette which rests, for the most part, on muscular crescendos and a general proneness to vocally override his character. A very striking example can be heard in “Mamma, quel vino è generoso” where he forces the tone on “Santa” and “tornassi” into a Gargantuan climax that has little in common with the onset of tragedy normally associated with Turiddu’s plea.

The more significant problem, however, lies in Jagde’s phrasing; in passages like the “Brindisi” it seems neglectful or disruptive to the melodic line which, in turn, becomes disconnected from the syntax.

To give but some examples, Jagde builds a sustained line on “come-il-riso-dell’amante-mite-infonde-il-giubilo.” On the passage’s immediate repetition he inexplicably drops the article and, with a break, jumps from “infonde” to “giubilo.”

Similarly, it is counterintuitive to break the legato on “viva-il/vino” where the noun stands oddly separated from its preceding article – and yet again, its repetition only a few bars later is molded into a logical and indeed flawless line of phrasing!



…In an Uninspired Cast

The baritone of Lester Lynch brings all the heft to make for a daunting portrait of the betrayed carter; and yet he seems curiously out of touch with his character, following the full-throated aesthetics of an all too straightforward sound.

Few are thus the subtleties and dramatic inflections of an already short part laden with some unimaginative singing; the psychological profile of Alfio remains slim throughout. What is more, there is a striking vibrato that extends into a wobbly impression in much of his high tessitura.

The best contribution to the present release comes from Melody Moore whose clear voice identifies with the innocence of Santuzza while lacking depth in the score’s weightier moments such as the duets.

It is especially in the lower range that she is reaching her limits and the chest voice, though uncompromising, proves the Achilles heel of an otherwise impeccable technique. Confessing her plight to the jealous Alfio, she strikes a plaintive tone that oscillates between fine legato and the interpolated fil di voce on “il labbro mio non è.”

As mentioned above, it is on the low end that the American soprano is falling short and the heart wrenching “abbandonarmi” as the role’s most powerful moment lacks the incisiveness of a mezzo-soprano which, as a matter of personal inclination, I find a keener choice in the casting of Santuzza.

As a whole, the release does not work and it can barely hold its place among its more recent competitors, not to speak of the acknowledged cornerstones in a long recording history.

What causes the distress is not readily apparent, but it undoubtedly hinges upon a general inability or reluctance to make concessions to the score – whether it pertains to Janowski and his artistic vision, however superb and arbitrary, or the emotional detachment of the soloists.

The overall sense of harmony is clearly missing and one is tempted to regret that the considerable resources of the Dresdener Philharmonie have not been used to explore the unknown Mascagni. “Silvano,” for instance, is deserving of every attention and as the earlier work’s little brother would have had the undoubted benefit of foregoing any risk of comparison.


DVD and CD ReviewsReviews