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Easter Hunt: Santuzza & Turiddu

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Picture it: Sicily, Easter 1880.

A beautiful young peasant girl confronts the young man who has been two-timing her with another man's wife.

He loses patience with her, shoving her to the ground on the way to join the other woman in church.

The girl curses his Easter and reveals all to the woman's husband.

The husband swears vengeance, and once he accepts the young man's challenge to a duel, he avenges his honor with blood.

At the heart of Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana lies the extended scontro between ex-lovers Santuzza and Turiddu, the final episode of which is Santuzza's last-ditch plea that Turiddu not abandon her («No, no, Turiddu, rimani, rimani ancora»). High-voltage plangent lyricism musically dramatizes their emotional impasse until Santuzza disgorges the fateful «A te la mala Pasqua, spergiuro!»—May your Easter be cursed, you traitor!

On to three classic performances of this pulse-driving episode:

Decca: 1957/09/01–07 Teatro Comunale, Firenze

Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

c. Alberto Erede

Turiddu: Jussi Björling

Santuzza: Renata Tebaldi

A Genovese conductor who trained not only in Milano but also in Basle and Dresden, Alberto Erede was the first Italian to conduct at Bayreuth since Arturo Toscanini. For Decca throughout the 1950s he conducted Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi in their initial monophonic complete opera studio recordings. Although those two great artists would later re-record several of those titles with different conductors in stereo, the earlier Erede albums preserve the youthful vocal freshness which first endeared them to the record-collecting public.

Erede leads the Maggio Musicale forces with a steady hand, guiding the music inevitably from start to finish while giving his singers room to make their interpretative points. And what singers: two of the most glamourous-toned stars of the era, both in sumptuous voice and uninhibited spirits.

Italian critical jargon would classify the great Jussi's sound as «un timbro solare»—a «solar» timbre—and what excitement to hear that timbral «solarity» gain further ring in Turiddu's frequent ascents through the passaggio. Amid the manfully handsome singing, one is struck by two particularly telling inflections: the uniquely Sicilian shudder on «sul limitare fin della chiesa!» and the devilish little chuckle after his parting shot to Santuzza.

Santuzza is Renata Tebaldi, «la voce d'angelo» (the angelic voice) herself. Disdaining any temptation to brutalize the music for the sake of amplifying the character's tragedy, instead La Tebaldi infuses phrase after phrase with passionately mournful tone, bestowing upon povera Santa the majestic desperation of a Sorrowing Madonna. Then comes the moment of the great curse, and La Voce d'Angelo Is Out For Blood: roaring out her imprecation and erupting into tears in the wake of it. (This arresting volte-face reminds one that Lucifer had been, after all, the most beautiful of heaven's angels.)

1963/12/07 Teatro alla Scala, Milano

Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala

c. Gianandrea Gavazzeni

Turiddu: Franco Corelli

Santuzza: Giulietta Simionato

Programmed to celebrate Mascagni's centenary, La Scala's 1963–64 season opening Cavalleria unfurls over a taut theatrical pulse. Gianandrea Gavazzeni urges the orchestra on, sempre incalzante, constantly in hot pursuit of the contentious ex-lovers.

As the ex-lovers, two gladiators: Franco Corelli's Turiddu is all bronze-toned impatience in the face of Giulietta Simionato's poignant Santuzza. True to human psychology, even her anger is born of pain, with tears in the voice whether beseeching or denouncing. The curse itself is a stunning display of contrasts, «A te la mala Pasqua» hurled out in raw, tear-stained accents but followed up with a brilliant top tone on «spergiuro!».

The audience barely hesitates before erupting.

BBC: 1973 (11/26 and/or 12/02) Royal Festival Hall, London

pf. Ivor Newton

Turiddu: Giuseppe di Stefano

Santuzza: Maria Callas

Film footage from the 1973–74 Callas/di Stefano concert tour captures them twenty years after the historic Cavalleria recording they made for EMI (1953 Milano). Fascinating to watch this pair of titans unflinchingly refuse to be distracted by their very real vocal stresses and instead be undividedly present through the theatrical journey. Even though by now Pippo's vocal emission skewed heavily towards bawling, traces remain of his birthright sunkissed timbre, and he is fully in character as a temperamental Sicilian macho.

Comeback Callas fights her share of middle-voice skirmishes, paying for moments of chest resonance thrust too high (up to A-natural and B-flat in the middle of the treble staff!) with mid-phrase patches of threadbare tone. Those struggles are compensated by the vocal line's lower- and higher-lying passages which allow her to flesh out the music with something approaching her resonance of yore. Finally, how heartwarming to witness the capacity audience's enthusiastic response coaxing the diva out of intense performance focus and into pleased relief, perhaps even (one dares hope) enjoyment.

A final word about The Great Curse: historically divas have seized the opportunity to charge Santuzza's epithet with their individual brands of hostility, and audiences adore them for it:

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