Audiences have long been accustomed to the pairing of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci. Each of these works can be presented in one long act, and usually they have been from the time of their premieres in the 1890s. Theatergoers, on the other hand, expect more when they surrender most of an evening. Operatic impresarios responded quickly: as early as October of 1891, Cavalleria was joined with Carl Zeller’s Der Vogelhändler at the Casino in New York. More commonly, however, first Cavalleria and then Pagliacci were given on double-bills with Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, an opera that today is usually presented with a different audience in mind and even a different standard of production. Pre-Mozart works have tended to be defined as “early” – before bel canto, long before Verdi, Massenet, Wagner or the rise of the verismo style. Orfeo was first produced in the 1760s. What occasioned it to be revived in the late-19th century and then presented on the same night as such a “modern” piece as Cavalleria?
Over a lengthy career, C. W. Gluck grew into the role of operatic innovator, a composer and librettist who would put aside the more baroque elements of vocal display that had characterized opera for much of the 18th century. He is credited with emphasizing emotion and a simplified plot line as shown through the music rather than merely attendant upon it. In this sense, Gluck anticipated the best features of the verismo style that would hit the musical world with such force over a hundred years later. We 21st-century listeners may also want to keep in mind that ”realistic” verismo elements were themselves based on much older forms: Commedia dell’ Arte as well as traditions of French dramatic theater. Paris was indeed the setting for Orfeo’s successful revival in 1859, with a contralto in the title role (rather than a male singer) and new orchestrations by Berlioz and Saint-Saëns.
There was more experimentation with double bills: scenes from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor were given on the same night as Pagliacci at the Met in January of 1894 (Nellie Melba as Lucia). Yet by later that same year the double bill of “Cav & Pag” had become well established. With one long intermission, a full night of musical theater could be presented and the house closed up before midnight.