Move On to Number Two — Please!

When my Shakespeare professor (Richard Harrier) assigned us Romeo and Juliet, I was tempted not to read it, because I’d read it in high school. But since Harrier devoted three hours of lecture to each play, I didn’t want to rely on memory.

After Harrier finished with the prior play he assigned, he said, “I’d like to talk now about Romeo and Juliet. The lesson of the play is simple. If things don’t work out with your number one choice, move on to number two.”

And that was it. He went on to the next play he had assigned us.

I thought about that last night as The Fabulous Wife and I attended the San Francisco Opera’s first staging of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci in 15 years. The two works run only 75 minutes each, and they were my mother’s favorites, so I’m willing to sit through them.

The singing was fine. The orchestra was fine. The staging and lighting and costuming were fine. But the environment was not. The War Memorial Opera House’s seats are narrow and devoid of leg room — it’s tighter than an airplane up there in Dress Circle. Worse still, to my right sat a patron using an assistive listening device that blared the English translation of the libretto, so I was trying to concentrate on the singing through Stephen Hawking reading the lines to me. To The Fabulous Wife’s left sat a superannuated couple that argued over which of them was feebler, cried “oh my” when something onstage surprised them, and hummed along to the famous tunes. Oh, and we think that was the associate concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony sitting in front of The Fabulous Wife, which was way cool — except she has this full head of hair that impaired TFW’s view of the stage.

We managed to overcome all that.

What we couldn’t overcome is that these two operas have aged badly, and the artistic director, famed tenor Jose Cura, doesn’t seem to get that.

Both operas are about a brand of male sexual jealousy we can no longer euphemize as “passion.” In Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), the male lead, Turiddu (Italian for Toodly-doo) loves Lola, but while he’s away she marries Alfio. Turiddu moves on to number two, Santuzza, and gets her pregnant out of wedlock. Then he makes fresh moves on Lola and starts a torrid affair with her. Alfio finds out, goes crazy, kills Turiddu, and the curtain falls.

The 2003 production struck me as daringly anti-clerical, presenting Santuzza as a victim not only of Turiddu but of an inflexible, hypocritical Roman Catholic Church: she is excommunicated for having the affair, whereas Turiddu isn’t. In the 2018 production, Santuzza is still a victim, but the Church isn’t implicated in her downfall. In fact, Cura’s version of the Easter Mass scene is as reverent as a Perry Como Christmas album. Maybe Cura figured the audience would make its own connections to the the Church’s recent sins. If so, I thank him for his esteem, but also think he should have sat next to the people we did last night before making that conclusion.

I Pagliacci (The Clowns) doesn’t have religious overtones, but is also about a jealous husband, in this case the lead clown, Canio. He gives street urchin Nedda a life as part of his itinerant theater troupe. She prefers the more bourgeois Silvio and plans to run away with him. But before they can flee, Canio’s second, the brutish Tonio, makes a move on Nedda. She spurns him, he tattles to Canio about her plan to run away, the enraged Canio kills her and Silvio, and the curtain falls.

My advice to both Alfio and Canio would have been to move on to number two. Both operas would have been deeper for it. Although these two works were composed in the so-called verismo (“realism”) style, the plots are real the way Real Housewives is. I mean, jeez, the Rolling Stones showed a deeper understanding of sexual relations with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

And by the way, if you’re wondering whether you’ve heard any of the music in these operas, the answer is yes. I Pagliacci features perhaps the most famous aria of all, Vesti la giubba, known to those of a certain age as the “No More Rice Krispies” song.

Enrico Caruso as Canio, circa 1904.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.