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
Read the about Cavalleria Rusticana here.
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.
As glass dominated Cavalleria, metal defines Pagliacci. We want to house the complexity and playfulness of the piece within a single, fantastical and fictitious machine. The players, the fascinating color-clad outsiders who excite and distract the town with promise of entertainment, roll their compact nomadic lives on stage with a shell of a converted house overgrown and expanded by spaces and mechanical appendages into an amorphous patchwork of steel, copper, corrugated metal roofing, and metal blinds carved with delicate shapes leaking light. The machine represents many things: it is the manifestation of Pagliacci’s innovativeness and control, his entrepreneurial establishment of the traveling performance house. The house subsumed within it is dilapidated and dysfunctional, subjugated to the demands of the theatre and the mobility of the machine. We want to evoke beauty, fascination and melancholia. The machine keeps to the qualities of otherworldliness and of ‘no-time,’ evoking the sense of endless spaces contained within it. It is not a da Vinci-esque machina of the past, or simply a heap-of-junk caravan. It has two distinct parts, which can separate and reveal the claustrophobic lives of Nedda and Canio crowded with their mirrors, costumes, masks, theatre hardware and mechanical body parts. The machine, tilted as if defying balance, is pulled by a frail corner, on a diagonal, by a mechanical arm that grips the lanky bars of a unicycle. Canio leads the giant structure on foot, while Tonio and Peppe toil at the back to push it onwards. Nedda is tiredly draped over her banister, from which she has stared off into countless skies. A myriad of variously sized wheels crowd under the machine, some useable and touching the ground while others are suspended uselessly in the air.
Our intentions and ideas for this machine have evolved and reworked themselves almost relentlessly. What we attach here is a progression of those ideas, and the place we have arrived, just prior to reaching its conclusion.
This machine represents, or rather it expresses, Canio - Canio, whose pathological jealousy we want to establish at the centre. Pierrot’s past versions, of the melancholic artist clown, have inspired one aspect of Canio - the suggestion of him as a self-loving charming performer, a master of his illusionary craft and a possessor of a great plagued ego. He was perhaps, even, an all-giving all-needing lover, however, a cruelty has developed within him because of a long-standing rejection, an inability to possess and control Nedda’s affection. Nedda rejects him and has grown to abhor him. The balance of power between them is quite a collusive and forceful one. Made menacing by his inability to obtain her, and developing from it an obsessive, consuming jealousy, Canio cannot bear the thought of Nedda releasing those emotions she has withheld from him on someone else - not even in the performed role of Colombina. For this reason, we chose one untraditional aspect: our Arlecchino is a mechanical man. He is a puppet created by Canio - a mechanical gem which draws in the curious audiences of both adults and children. He is also the manifestation of Canio’s grave jealousy. Nedda’s confinement, her inability to have the emotional fulfillment she is longing for, is complete even within the realm of performance. She performs her romantic roles with a mechanical metal doll. There is also a compelling staging reason for choosing to abstract Arlecchino into the realm of the mechanical. In the final performance of the play within the play (the third time during our evening at the opera that we are witnessing a depicted story of a betrayal), we propose that the dynamic tension should not be a frivolous or even a symbolic one between Colombina and Arlecchino, but that it needs to be the playing-out of the culminating dynamic between Nedda and Canio. Canio is visible throughout the performance, prominently placed at the back of the players’ stage, from where he controls the mechanical Arlecchino with cables and switches. While, the physical Arlecchino of our play is mechanical, his part is sung from a prominent place by Peppe, likely a beautiful young member of the troupe, who Nedda shares the nearest affinity with, and who Canio has needed to even symbolically alienate. Nedda is, therefore, playing with Canio, and Canio is playing with Nedda. There is also a quality of a perversive fetish being played out, as Canio has in the past achieved self-pleasure from watching Nedda exhibited with the beautiful brass doll-man. On this evening, at the moment when Canio cannot bear the scenario any longer, he discards his controls - the mechanical man is arrested becoming lifeless - and Canio prematurely enters the scene (hence, Colombina’s line: “tornasti presto”).
While the fantasy of the mechanical man and travelling machine are an expression of Canio’s pathological jealously, and a surrealistically escapist way of coping, they are at the same time a curious, and brilliant, entrepreneurial invention, awaited with excited anticipations by the small towns Canio’s troupe survives on. On this evening a particular disquiet will grip the audience of the small village as Nedda will enter on stage as Colombina dressed very simply in a costume strikingly close to that of Lola. As she will appear in the unmistakeable strutting raised spanish sleeves of Lola’s blouse - the pale lavender assigned to her skirt, and the same black print of falling peacock feather-roses - the audience will gasp. The sorrowful reality of the afternoon will replay itself in the evening, except this time we will continue the story of Lola - a story which was left stranded and unfinished by Cavalleria. The ghost-like aspect of Cavalleria will be continued, as we will witness the village recognize Lola and watch her play love with a metal doll.
Let us return now to where we left off with Tonio and the Prologue. The kite is whisked from the childrens’ hands and the village crowds the stage to meet the machine. Canio enters in a first version of Pierrot: an eccentric gray pin-striped suit with tails, worn significantly into its edges, as if cut from the same cloth bales that stock the town. A window at the front of the machine will open to partially reveal the mechanical Arlecchino, which will subtly make a gesture at the children, sending them into peels of excitement as they will scamper closer.
Tonio will rotate the machine for Nedda, cracking it open to reveal her crowded inside space. The romantic pink shades of the evening honey-hour will ironically and peacefully lull over Tonio’s misguided proclamation of love. Discarded and ridiculed, this Iago will inveigle Canio’s rage to the consequence of murder. When Silvio enters, the lovers play out passion against a more turbulent, rapidly shifting background. Black birds begin to fly singly onto the screen and land on the horizon. When Tonio spies the lovers, and exclaims aside, these birds, startled, will take flight and ominously scatter throughout the sky. During the intermezzo, the machine will have shifted and opened allowing Nedda and Canio to be isolated in their separate spaces. He, overtaken by the sorrow and rage of her betrayal, prepares his white masked face for the performance; She, suspend in a silent moment among her objects, makes a final decision to leave. The theatre is erected quietly around them. The screen expires for the first time within our evening, the darkness of night is reached. The black sky, darkened by a black scrim, will break progressively around a watching moon. The town will assemble and fill the dark meadow with small lanterns that romantically glitter with the seductive anticipation of a distraction and entertainment. They will await laughter and mechanical fantasy, unaware as yet that ghosts are about to smile from the stage and lose life again. By the final bars of the orchestral play-out, the chorus will have fled, frightened by the murder, and the bodies of Nedda and Silvio will rest beside the still company of the mechanical man and within the gaze of the observing mask of Tonio.
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