Apair of one-act operas opened at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis this past Thursday. It was an outstanding night for diva lovers, a profitable night for Kleenex stockholders and a very bad night for the proponents of the "morning after" birth-control pill. Both Giacomo Puccini's Sister Angelica and Pietro Mascgani's Cavalleria Rusticana turn on the tragic complications caused by out-of-wedlock pregnancies in pre-twentieth-century Italy. Both are the kind of classic lust-punishment-death stories that opera composers and fans have adored over the centuries and have provided the big canvas on which star sopranos show their stuff. Kelly Kaduce as Puccini's tormented nun and Lisa Daltirus as Santuzza, Mascagni's jilted lover, take full advantage of their opportunities and deliver strikingly different performances. Had the morning-after pill existed back then, we would have been deprived of two terrific interpretations.
The operas are as different as the composers themselves. Puccini and Mascagni were roommates back in their college days at the Milan Conservatory. That's the last thing they had in common. Cavalleria, Mascagni's first opera, was a huge success. He got 30 curtain calls on its opening night and was hailed as the "New Maestro" (Verdi had recently died). But Mascagni turned out to be a one-hit wonder. The rest of his career was a 60-year downhill slide that ended with him dying in squalor in 1945 after a failed attempt to latch on to Mussolini's Fascist Party for one last grab at the brass ring.
Puccini, it turned out, was the New Maestro. Melody and harmony poured out of him. His unerring dramatic sense and consummate orchestration skills, all of which are on abundant display in Sister Angelica, combined in a style that was original and compelling. Sister Angelica came near the end of a career that made him one of the most successful and beloved composers in opera history. When he died in 1924, all of Italy went into mourning. His home was turned into a museum.
Cavalleria Rusticana (literally "Rustic Chivalry") takes place in a small Sicilian town. Turiddu is engaged to Lola. He returns from the army to discover she's married Alfio, a successful teamster. Turiddu has a fling with Santuzza, who becomes pregnant and is excommunicated for her immorality. Santuzza comes after Turiddu to do the right thing by the baby. But he has taken advantage of Alfio's traveling to reignite his affair with Lola. When Alfio finds them out, the Sicilian code of honor sarcastically referred to in the title demands a duel. The opera ends in death and disgrace all around.
From the moment Santuzza enters, the opera revolves around her. Lisa Daltirus possesses a full, lush, darkly glowing voice and the dramatic presence to take over a scene. This opera belongs to her. She is the archetypal diva, an imposing woman with a majestic voice and outsize stage moves. Daltirus' singing, like Mascagni's music, is full-throated and dramatic. Waves of emotional and musical crescendos follow one another. Daltirus takes full tonal advantage. She flows smoothly from soaring and forceful to husky and tender. It's a classic grand opera performance.
Sister Angelica is set in a convent. Every voice in this opera is female -- and Puccini takes full advantage. His score begins impressionistic and airily serene, the perfect counterpoint to the sentimentality and violence of Cavalleria and its music. Angelica was sent to the convent after bearing an illegitimate child. She has become the convent's herbalist (it's the seventeenth century) and lives on the hope of rejoining her baby in Heaven. When her aunt brings news that the child has died, Angelica is devastated and decides to kill herself. She brews and drinks a poison potion, then realizes that her suicide is a mortal sin. She will not go to Heaven. As she dies, Sister Angelica prays to the Virgin for forgiveness and a miracle.
Kelly Kaduce's searing and delicate portrayal of Angelica is the high point of the evening and may well turn out to be the high point of this opera season. In the hour this opera takes, the staging evolves effortlessly from lightness and contentment to ominously brooding, then devastatingly dark and finally radiantly redemptive. Kaduce's sublimely subtle performance mirrors those moods. She forgoes the hysteria usually associated with Angelica's final arias and creates an intensely intimate and luminous portrayal. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.