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The Santa Barbara Grand Opera's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "I Pagliacci" are set at the same crossroads in a small town in Sicily at both ends of WWII. Ian Campbell's "Cavalleria Rusticana" takes place in 1937. Turiddu has just returned from service in Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia. This is the high point of Mussolini's military adventures, and the sets are relatively upbeat. Mama Lucia's tavern is decorated with flower pots. Tables and chairs are on the patio. A cartload of flowers arrives for the church, and the atmosphere is festive.

As soon as the main characters appear, it's all doom and gloom. Santuzza unburdens herself to Mama Lucia. She's jealous and hurt because Turiddu is chasing after Lola, his former girlfriend, who has married Alfio, while he was in the army. Alfio senses something is up. He's dark, brooding, and arrogant. There's no happiness anywhere in this opera. All the characters dress in blacks, grays, and browns, with the exception of Lola. She in bright colors, and Tihana Herceg is flirtatious, flippant, and flighty as she teases Turiddu and Santuzza with disastrous effect.

After the church service the villagers all celebrate with Turiddu and his wine. Like the period in the war, there's an undercurrent of apprehension in the air during the celebration. This is all being forced, and something has to give. Lola comes out and pushes everything to it's peak. When Turiddu offers Alfio the wine, everything blows up and we are swept to the tragic climax.

This was the first time I've seen "Cavalleria Rusticana," and I still don't understand how Mascagni pulls off this tragedy. With "Boheme," "Tristan," and most all great tragedies, there is a high point. Rodolfo and Mimi have their shining moment before their crushing defeat. Not here. This is the dark side of humanity from start to finish. The depth of darkness is almost like "Richard III," and like Shakespeare it's that depth that wrings you out with no lightness to juxtapose it all.

The excellent cast was led by Gabriel Reoyo-Pazos' hauntingly passionate Turiddu. At the end, when it is too late, he finally realizes the depth of his love for Tracy Saliefendic's Santuzza. Victoria Hart's Mama Lucia keeps everything grounded for as long as she can, as she listens, advises, and soothes.

Michael Davidson's Alfio is gruff and scowling. He doesn't seem to trust or like anyone. He returns as the scheming Tonio in Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci." This is set in 1943, and all of the apprehensions of 1937 have become reality. The church is stripped bare. The tavern is closed up, with the flower pots gone, the shutters broken, and the tables and chairs overturned and stacked up on the patio. Vladimir Shcherbakov's Canio erupts at the first joking reference to infidelity on the part of Nedda. He's a commanding presence in his jealous rage.

Nedda soars as she sings of strange lands and longs to fly away. Barbara Divis is repulsed by Tonio when he tells her of his love. He knows that he's deformed, and scorned, but he still has dreams. When she laughs and mocks him he tries to kiss her. She pushes him away and lashes him with the whip as he swears his revenge.

Nedda meets her lover Silvio, and she and David Stoneman sing a beautiful love duet as they passionately embrace. This is as close to bliss as we get all night. They plan to run away tomorrow. Tonio sees them, and gets Canio, who surprises them, as Silvio runs away. While Canio chases him, Tonio steps on Nedda's foot, mocks her, and tells her there's more to come. He slips a knife to Canio before the play.

For the final act, a theater curtain is in the doorway of the tavern. There's a table, with two chairs on the patio. A hand thrusts out from behind the curtain and hands Columbine objects with which she sets the table. The audience gathers around close to the stage, as Columbine, Harlequin, and Taddeo outrageously overact their parts. When Canio as Pagliaccio, the jealous, cheated upon husband arrives everything blows up. The plot is too much like reality for him, and he shouts and threatens. Some of the audience move back. He knocks over the table and chairs, and the rest of them move away. As he rages, Tonio holds back Beppe, who is going to step in, and the play comes to it's chilling conclusion, with the death and destruction that also symbolizes post war Italy. Valery Ryvkin conducted this fascinating production of "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "I Pagliacci" at the Santa Barbara Grand Opera.

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