Cavalleria Rusticana | Pietro Mascagni
Stage Director & Lighting Design: Paul Cegys 
Production Design: Marzena Puzniak
Transparency and the Macabre of Mechanical Melancholy A staging and design proposal for Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci
Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci will be presented here, unified in time and place, set at the precipice of a José Saramago end of the road - the place where the earth decided to crack and isolate itself. The warm meadow extending itself on either side of the stone road is woven of straw (wisps of straw are woven into patterns reminiscent of the stylized sea waves of Japanese block prints). Beyond the meadow and the road, an expansive sky fills the breadth of our image. A large panoramic rear-projection screen animates a time-lapse video montage of a sky transforming itself over the course of a day. In Cavalleria, the scene is dominated by an abstract angular glass church stretching with its sharp geometric steeples into the sky. The church is partnered with the squatter facade of a glass house standing beside it. The two spaces will blend into one another. These transparent glass surfaces distort the images, people and sky contained within and behind them. They refract and interact with the light passing through them. For Pagliacci these buildings will disappear, leaving us within the anonymous expanse of the meadow and sky, anticipating the arrival of the fanciful, the theatrical and the mechanical. Pagliacci will diverge more sharply into the realm of melancholic fantasy, however, it will do so gently with the same persons of the same town witnessing the continuation of the same day punctured by betrayals but set within the musical elation of celebration.
We strive with our staging to adhere in the first place to the music. The musical score particularly of Mascagni asks for grandeur and expansiveness and is overwhelming in instances with the elation of ritual and celebration, yet it also tempers with its subtlety. Particularly, in the relation between the libretto and the score of Cavalleria there exists an interesting balanced quality. We have been calling this quality, though not quite correctly, ‘existential.’ The turns within the story are at many moments tragic, however, the music soars with an elated quality. The attitudes of the main lovers are not overly despairing, in the context of many other operatic comparisons. There is an almost ‘existentialist’ acceptance of the consequences of action, and the assumption of one’s personal responsibility for those consequences. The celebration of Easter flows in parallel to the emotional betrayal of an almost frivolous affair. The librettists have not chosen to emphasize proclamations of judgement within the text despite the centrality of adultery and betrayal. Similarly, as Turiddu goes off to die, he is primarily concerned with the present reality of his actions, of Santuzza’s future and of his mother. Even though a moral order does seem to be restored as Alfio exacts revenge and Turiddu dies, none of the characters are vilified and we do not get a sense that the order restored is necessarily a religiously prescribed one. Instead, it seems to be a much more allegorical order of human love and transgression. There is on the one hand a ritual celebration of perhaps one of the most prominent deaths in human history, that of Jesus as a sacrifice for humanity, and yet on the other hand there is the meaningless death of Turiddu, youth extinguished in exchange for a brief moment of carnal pleasure. Leoncavallo’s Pagaliacci, although very different musically, is quite versatile and to us seems very much to be in harmony with the world that we establish for Cavalleria. The harmony, and the similarity of theme, between the two pieces is so amicable, that what Cavalleria will end in the afternoon sky Pagliacci will continue in the deepening saturation of the evening and the approaching drama of the night.
Now, to describe the world that we strive to establish, we reach for ideas of timelessness, allegory, magical realism and anonymity. We were compelled to seek a timelessness which we find easiest to describe as akin to the suspended ‘no-time’ of Hayao Miyazaki’s animations - where archaic elements of history are blended with the fantastical and imaginative elements of the future. We are not so much concerned with the fantasy, but more with the blending of visual and social elements into an eclectic and elusive reality. As if human heritage left all of its past socio-cultural inclinations as materials which can be explored fancifully and a-chronologically. There is a particular specificity of context, however, which we felt was important to maintain: the isolation and remote claustrophobia of a small village, the transparency of people’s lives in this context, and the novelty of experiences brought from the outside. The setting evokes this isolation, and so do the costumes, which are for the most part monochromatic, elegant but stringently controlled. For Easter the town is wearing its nicest sets of whites, browns, blacks and grays in geometric patterns, stripes and a few abstract floral prints. There is a feeling of the costumes having been made from a single shelf of fabrics, an archaic feeling, intruded upon by the carefully selected elements of color that call attention to themselves. Lola possesses an extravagance because of her husband’s access to material from the outside. The children of this town are not depicted through a Zeffirellian romanticization, instead they carry themselves as ‘little kinds of adults.’
Religion appears on stage through lavish observance as a distant relative of Christianity. The town performs rituals of devotion and celebration, which we recognize elements and intentions of, while some particularities feel foreign. At the centre of the observance, for example, is a stone statue of St. Mary, which is clothed in the extravagant orange gold-trim cloths reminiscent of the clothed and garlanded Hindu temple idols. The statue will be carried by the villagers to the edge of their road, and there bestowed with flowers during the Regina Coeli in celebration of the mother who lost her son, a parallel of course to Mama Lucia who will soon lose her child. At this moment reality will be broken with a moment of fantasy and small flower petals will fall mystically on the town in a joyful eulogy.
Lets us take a step back now and observe some of the chronology of how Cavalleria Rusticana is to unfold on stage. The opera opens with a dream sequence during the musical prelude. The curtain rises in front of a dark, almost black stage. Inside it we perceive a distant and confined glow of candles with the shadows of figures assembled beside it, observing a vigil. They are behind glass. Dimly visible, a funeral procession crosses the stage behind the, ambiguous at this point, glass facades carrying a mound of flowers on a catafalque, symbolizing the body of Jesus. The procession enters the church and joins the vigil. Above those praying and those carrying, high on a platform within the slanted roof of the house, the undressed figure of a woman is illuminated, laying nakedly contorted in a position of self-pleasure. She presses herself into the cold glass facade. This is the self-pleasuring Lola. Turiddu appears, equally enigmatically and faintly in the background, singing muffled from behind those praying and behind the glass, fixated as he sings on the body of Lola. As he makes his way around the glass wall another figure is extracted for us from the blackness - the figure of Santuzza pressed into the angular wall of the church. Turiddu and Santuzza confront one another. As the dream sequence fades, Turiddu leaves and Santuzza is reassumed by the darkness, our attention is returned to the intensifying vigil and the faint hue of an early morning sky. The shapes of the glass buildings and the contorted patterns of the floor begin to make themselves apparent.
The video and projections expand the black space with a reality and definition only recently enabled by projection technology. We would like to make use of this recent possibility and use video in a way that gives it a distinct presence on stage. The sky takes on a quality of a constantly present member of the dramatic action (the way that a natural element like wind would be always present and altering the space if it could be simulated). At times the sky would be slowly morphing with an almost imperceptible flow, at other times it would rush dramatically and surreally with an enhanced speed through carefully chosen atmospheric states. The intention is for it to bring to the stage that element of beauty and magnificence that is so profound in nature, but so challenging to engender and recreate in the performance space. Stage lighting would extend this natural video reality, the moods and the states of the sky, throughout the stage. We have chosen to widen and rake the stage progressively from the downstage to the upstage, and have carefully considered sight lines from all positions in the house, in order to optimize an expansive perspective for the configuration of the audience.
The bright and vibrant morning skies of Cavalleria are crowded and occupied in a large part with the choral passages and the observances of Easter celebrations. As the stage empties after the Regina Coeli for the more intimate scenes, the chorus, parts of the chorus and supernumeraries will be directed to perform stylized rituals behind the glass facades. The encounters of the first act, therefore, are staged with a stylized mass occurring in their background, augmenting and contrasting their dramatic tensions. At opportune times the mass will call attention to itself, at others it will recede into an almost static imaginary background.
On a few occasions, besides holding the sky, the screen will also be used to bring in distorted images, such as when Alfio enters behind the glass facades and on the screen appear the ephemeral and distorted passing images of his arriving horses. Similarly, Lola’s entrance is given a ghost like quality. Her image appears and enters on the screen, distorted by the glass, before she appears in reality from a different direction. The hallucinatory duplication of this entrance reflects Turiddu’s intoxication with her, as he imagines her appearing before she does so.
The most significant alteration of the space will occur when the glass double doors and window of the house are thrown open, transparent tables are brought in to transform the house into a tavern, crowding it with the translucent glass objects of vats, decanters, bottles and glasses filled with the dark colors of wines. The crowd of the chorus and supernumeraries would be passing boisterously between the inside and the outside, in contrast to the more solemn ordered entrances and exists that have been observed until now entering and emerging from the church. When Turiddu leaves the stage to face Alfio, the sky reaches its brightest point, assumes a dizzying intensity, which pushes men to rash acts and intoxicates the peaceful town with the tragedy of a prematurely young loss.
As the curtain rises for Pagliacci, the chorus of the town we left in Cavalleria is assembled at the edge of the road with a coffin for Turiddu. Their backs are to us, as they slowly walk the coffin up the road. The second opera begins in the same way as the first. The glass structures are gone, however, and we are in the vast anonymous expanse of the meadow, against a vibrant afternoon sky. As the procession climbs its way up the road, Tonio appears downstage, two village kids notice him and push their way through the funeral procession to get to him. Tonio, masked, chases them playfully up to the horizon, where he takes something out of his pocket: a bundle that unfolds and links to a concealed cable, and a kite is whisked up and quivered through the sky - a kite with the face of Arlecchino, a fanciful advertisement for the evenings’ performance. The fascinated children are given its string, and as they hold the kite Tonio descends down the hill and begins his prologue.
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