Revisiting Alfio

Ralph Schatzki-The Voice Station-Core Melody Voice Studio

by Ralph Schatzki

One baritone's experience of performing Alfio. -Read article.


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Revisiting Alfio

One baritone's experience of performing Alfio. Cavalleria rusticana, the one-act opera of Pietro Mascagni, one of the standard works in the canon known as verismo; performing it is extraordinarily difficult. Other operas may be far longer or have many more notes, but from beginning to end this opera has such savage emotions, and these are expressed in large part through incredibly brutal singing.

Cavalleria rusticana,
the one-act opera of Pietro Mascagni, is one of the standard works in the canon known as verismo- those operas which portray “real” human emotions experienced by “real” people. The characters in these shows are neither deities, nor noble or famous; yet, their stories show deeply-felt emotions which, especially within the context of a successful production, creates a visceral impact far more substantial than that of most other operas.

Performing it is extraordinarily difficult. Other operas may be far longer or have many more notes, but from beginning to end this opera has such savage emotions, and these are expressed in large part through incredibly brutal singing.
The Story
For those of you who don't know the story of Cavalleria, I will provide a brief synopsis: It is Easter, and in a small Sicilian village everyone is getting ready for Mass. Santuzza, however, will not attend: she feels that she has been excommunicated for sleeping with Turiddu out of wedlock. Doubly unfortunate for her is that Turiddu has gone back to his old lover, Lola, who is now married to Alfio. (Clearly, Turiddu is not the most considerate of people.) Santuzza confides in Turiddu's mother, but she is unable to do much. Turiddu enters on his way to church, and Santuzza confronts him. She pleads with him to break off with Lola and return to her, but he not only denies the affair with Lola (despite evidence to the contrary, as she enters and flirts with him), he refuses to go back to Santuzza. Santuzza curses him as he enters the church. Alfio appears and Santuzza, still stung by Turiddu's words, reveals to Alfio his wife's infidelity. He swears vengeance and rushes off, leaving Santuzza horrified at what she has done. Later in the day,Turiddu sings a cheerful drinking song. Alfio enters and spoils the mood, however, and it becomes clear there will be a duel to the death. Alfio leaves to await Turiddu. After singing farewell to his mother, Turiddu goes to meet Alfio. Soon after, a villager rushes in and tells everyone that Turiddu has been killed.
My Take
I have just finished performing Alfio for the third time, and only now am I beginning to appreciate the power of the story. I don't know why it has taken me this long to feel connected to the character, since in most other shows I've done I feel pretty much connected from the beginning. One reason, perhaps, is precisely because the emotions are so raw. Another is because since the singing is so demanding, my primary focus in the past has been more vocal rather than theatrical.

This has been a difficult threshold to reach and overcome. I know there are those who are never comfortable enough with the technical demands this opera presents, and I feel very fortunate to have experienced even a glimmer of vocal competency that allows me finally to look into the character the way he deserves.

The reason I feel confident enough to say I have achieved this is because I can compare my three experiences with the role. When I first performed it, the situation was not optimal. This was a staged orchestral performance, and the circumstances of the production contained some musical obstacles which were difficult to overcome. I was happy simply to make it through the show without crashing and burning! The second performance was a concert orchestral version, and while it was a superior musical experience, because it was not staged it was robbed of much of its power. This most recent production was a staged performance with piano, and while the absence of an orchestra made it less than optimal, I had “grown into” the role enough that I felt I was finally doing it justice.

And I felt it. This was the first time that the import of all the characters' words and actions struck me deeply. I truly felt the anguish, the hatred, and the adrenaline that Alfio himself certainly experiences throughout the course of the story. In a way, this made me almost embarrassed about the other two performances. It's not that I had not necessarily done a bad job in them, but I realized I had been on the outside looking in.

We all know what it's like to be carried along by a story, and a really good show can convey raw emotion quite well. But how many times do we truly empathize with a character? How many times do we go that extra step- and it is a big one- and understand not only what a character is experiencing, but really try to experience it ourselves? It is especially hard to do in opera because the stories are so familiar, but if a singer can't do this it is unreasonable to expect that members of the audience can.

So, the show is over now. I have learned quite a lot about performing and about myself. The experience has strengthened my resolve to try even harder the next time, whether with Alfio or another operatic role, and to dig deeper and get down to what really matters: being real.

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