Review of the Royal Opera House 2021-22: Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci
(Credit: Tristram Kenton/Royal Opera House)
Double crossing, licentiousness and the sad demise of a once-popular showman: it all happened on the streets of Westminster as the Royal Opera House revived Damiano Michieletto’s double bill of ‘Cavalleria rusticana’ and “Pagliaci”. Observations from former Prime Minister Theresa May and former Johnson ally Michael Gove – himself ignominiously sacked by Johnson during the performancelater reported – were the perfect appetizer for an evening of gory drama.
This revival has had its share of changes in locations, however. Jonas Kaufmann was to sing Turridu but withdrew, first in part then in full; Ermonela Jaho and Anita Rachvelishvili also fell by the wayside. Substitutes came in the form of Roberto Alagna (“Pagliacci”) and (wife) Aleksandra Kurzak in both operas; SeokJong Baek, after a successful jump for “Samson” just a few weeks ago, took on the role of Turiddu.
A fabulous production
Michieletto’s contemporary production of this famous double program places him among the rural poverty of Calabria, in a way that nods to the grime and grit of post-war Italian neorealist cinema. In “Cavalleria Rusticana”, the action takes place inside and outside Mamma Lucia’s bakery – the Eucharistic bread complementary to the good wine that is toasted later in this Easter spectacle.
It is placed on a turntable, taking us into the character’s private angst and the hustle and bustle of religious public spectacle and male boastfulness. (The baked goods that appear during the Easter holidays – breads, pastries, columbines – are a fabulous naturalistic detail, even if they leave one absolutely hungry: eat before you come.) Alfio, here, is a petty criminal – can – being a mobster – who struts around with a polished motor and prepares fur coats for the grateful crowd. Turiddu, in a black leather jacket reminiscent of James Dean, wanders nonchalantly, a drunk discharged from the army and courting trouble with nihilism.
The pageantry of the Easter Anthem is gloriously kitschy, with Michieletto’s preponderance of the moments of dreamlike magic that unfold, the Madonna statue coming to life and glaring accusingly at Santuzza. A delirious moment of camp that is nonetheless theatrical. Elena Zilio plays Mamma Lucia – stunningly vocal for 81 – and anchors the first half, present for much of the action and heartbreaking at the climax.
Another twist, however, comes from Michieletto which ties the worlds of the two operas together quite convincingly. ‘Cav’ acts as a prologue to ‘Pag’: Handsome baker Silvio, who has all sorts of absorbing pursuits with checking dough and bakery ovens in the rather slow start of ‘Cav’, meets Nedda while ‘she and Beppe put up posters for the show during the famous Intermezzo. It’s a beautifully staged sequence that grounds their relationship in true tenderness that gives the second half much higher stakes. “Pag” also serves as a postlude, however: its intermezzo sees Santuzza asking a priest for absolution, then reconciling with Mamma Lucia. Sentimental? No doubt – but it is verismwhere emotions are brushed like a good olive on bread.
‘Pagliacci’ digs a less naturalistic groove than ‘Cav’ – perhaps in keeping with the piece’s higher self-awareness and its conscious prologue, delivered by the malevolent Tonio. The cast of the troupe are double cast, so as the play unfolds, they appear both onstage and offstage, with Canio seemingly hallucinating the action of the play behind the scenes, blurring the worlds. real and imagined, in a shrewd elaboration of the play’s oddly probing questions about the nature of theatrical, even lyrical, realism.
There are also sharper, lighter touches: the grandiose direction of the village choirmaster is great fun, and a delightfully conspiratorial wink and the kind of antics these pieces allow conductors to ride in the pit. The very last moments, as the room turns to bloodshed and villagers flee in terror, are expertly choreographed (including the jaw-dropping detail of an audience member continuing to applaud before being dragged outside) .
Michieletto’s regular collaborator Alessandro Carletti lights the piece evocatively, opening the show with a chiaroscuro freezes under a single streetlight and bathes Paolo Fantin’s rotating set in eerie green light as Canio struggles to differentiate between stage action and reality in “Pagliacci.”
A remarkable cast
Aleksandra Kurzak has her work cut out for her as Santuzza and Nedda, but acquitted herself impressively. There was perhaps some loss of consistency in its otherwise golden high notes in the second half, with a few windings and less polished moments; she may have oversung in “Cav” to cut through Mascagni’s luxurious orchestration. In “Pagliacci” Nedda’s ‘Stridono lassù’ had plenty of shimmering coloratura verve, in stark contrast to the dark, even Wagnerian-hued Santuzza of the first part. There, we heard a remarkable quality of darkness and depth – almost mezzo-ish – in his sound, especially in the “Voi lo sapete” sequence.
SeokJong Baek brings the same intensity and clarity to Turridu that audiences here heard in his Samson – bright, supple, ringing and classic Italian in style. Baek displayed scathing vocal exuberance in the “libiamo » Number. Meanwhile, the lightness of the voice has a touching fragility in its final scene with Mamma Lucia. A single treacherous note nearly stalled him – his approach to the climactic top note in that same scene was less than sure – but he kept his cool and, with remarkable professionalism, just about got away with it. .
Roberto Alagna brings enormous charisma to the scene and opened the second half with panache – despite the villainy of the character, Alagna is impressive in his ability to wring some sympathy from the public for him. Vocally, his instrument is as polished as ever, except for the highest notes, which wavered and strayed into screaming territory, but otherwise he displayed considerable vocal mastery. “Dress the giubbawas delivered with darkness and fury, with judicious nuance of vowels and precise use of cover to give us the requisite hit of self-loathing. The wilder, more dizzying sound of his descent into madness and rage across the room was thrilling and terrifying.
Dimitri Platanias handled both Alfio and Tonio with robust physics of movement and voice, although somewhat underwhelming in the latter. Its high notes resonated with plenty of power and brilliance, but the bass was murky and fuzzy, struggling to push the text through the luxurious orchestration. The “Pag” prologue managed to rock, however. Elena Zilio has been part of this production since it opened in 2016 and her mezzo is still remarkably clear.
Aigul Akhmetshina’s Lola – there are nuances of Monica Bellucci in the design – weaved a silky vocal canvas that showed meandering legato, though still dripping with honey. (Her recent work in Kosky’s “Carmen” shines here.) Mattia Olivieri has a handsome youthful baritone that shone in the tenderest moments of her duet with Nedda in the second half – although her power to soar over the orchestra didn’t help. was no less impressive.
The Royal Opera Chorus continued its established fine form in this year’s flagship pieces for choristers: ‘Lohengrin’, ‘Peter Grimes’, ‘Samson’ and of course ‘Nabucco’ last January. In the Easter Anthem, each climax managed to top the last, and revival director Noa Nammat should get plenty of credit for the vibrantly performed crowd scenes.
This repertoire is Antonio Pappano’s daily bread, in the pit that night, and it testifies to his love and understanding of this music that he is never called upon. Under his direction, the orchestra was particularly strong in “Pagliacci”, with Pappano’s ability to accentuate the contrast on moments of particularly pronounced textural and timbral interest: jewel-like clusters of solo strings shimmer a little more, and more sepulchral basses, when he ascends the rostrum.The elaboration of orchestral detail in Leoncavallo’s score is so tedious and lively that it seems to point the way to Pappano’s beloved Respighi. energetic and imaginative.