In Italy around 1890, thanks to a new genre called verismo, the lives of ordinary people caught up in everyday trials and tragedies, especially those involving lots of sex and violence, became the stuff of opera. These days, of course, such folks find a daily outlet in the likes of The Jerry Springer Show -- which, come to think of it, recently inspired an opera, too, but that's another story.
One of the ultimate verismo experiences remains Pietro Mascagni's compact Cavalleria Rusticana, a tale of Sicilian village life that crams in lust, jealousy, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, excommunication and bloody, fatal revenge -- all unfolding on Easter Sunday.
The combination of blunt effectiveness and rich lyricism in Mascagni's score propels this plot so evocatively that sets and costumes aren't totally necessary to grab an audience, a quality demonstrated Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center in a concert version of Cavalleria presented by Washington National Opera. There'll be a repeat Friday.
Bringing down the house Sunday was mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as Santuzza, the woman who loses her lover to his former, now-married girlfriend and can't bear the ignominy and heartache of it. Zajick produced a sound that, while not necessarily beautiful, filled the theater as it rode sturdily on Mascagni's impassioned melodic lines. Hers was a wonderfully old-fashioned, gutsy performance.
Salvatore Licitra was no slouch in the intensity business, either, as he threw himself into the role of Turridu, Santuzza's indifferent jilter. The tenor tended to push hard, limiting the romantic appeal of his off-stage aria at the beginning of the opera, but the payoff came in the vividness of the phrasing.
Gordon Hawkins made a vocally powerful Alfio, the wronged husband eager to settle things with Turridu in the traditional dueling manner. The baritone locked voices with Zajick for a particularly explosive account of the duet that turns Santuzza's anger and Alfio's honor into an irreversible force.
Madeleine Gray did vivid work as Turridu's distraught mother, Mamma Lucia. Leslie Mutchler slinked across the stage engagingly as Lola, Alfio's roving wife, and sang effectively. Except for some wiry "Alleluias" from the women during the Easter Hymn, the chorus was in good form.
Conductor Riccardo Frizza missed some opportunities to put added expressive spin on the score, but he provided plenty of fire. The company's orchestra, moving out of its accustomed spot in the pit to perform onstage with the singers, made a mostly firm, vibrant effort. But that placement meant that the balance and blend of the sound was not ideal, with a considerable loss of bass support.
To fill out the program, Frizza led the orchestra in lesser-known items from Italian opera, including the overture Verdi wisely jettisoned from his Aida in favor of a short prelude; an overture from an obscure, post-Cavalleria opera by Masgagni, Le Maschere; and passages from Puccini's first opera, Le Villi. The playing wasn't always tidy, but it was fun to hear such underexposed fare.
The concert will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W. Tickets are $51-$250. Call 202-295-2400 or 800-876-7372, or go to dc-opera.org.
Choral Arts Society
The Baltimore Choral Arts Society has had a busy time lately performing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and there's more to come -- Beethoven's Ninth, capping the BSO season in June. Next season, the chorus will again join the orchestra, performing Mozart's Requiem, but will, as usual, present its own concert season.
The 2008-2009 Choral Arts lineup will open Nov. 2 at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium with Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt, marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. It will be conducted by the ensemble's music director, Tom Hall, who will also moderate a preconcert discussion titled "Free at Last: Reflections on Exodus," focusing on the oratorio's text "in the context of biblical, Jewish, Christian and African-American history."
"Christmas with Choral Arts," a popular annual tradition, will return Dec. 2 to the Baltimore Basilica. Joining the chorus will be the radiant soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme.
On March 29, back at Kraushaar, the music of Haydn will be the focus, specifically nature-related music, including the "Sunrise" passage from The Creation and a rarely heard madrigal, The Storm ("Hark! The wild uproar of the winds").
Also on the Hall-conducted program will be the East Coast premiere of American composer Tina Davidson's Hymn of the Universe, based on texts by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Other offerings next season include the second annual Choral Arts presentation of a "Sing-Along Messiah" on Dec. 19 at Kraushaar.
Information: Call 410-523-7070 or go to baltimorechoralarts.org.