When I first decided to go to the opera some fifty years ago, my main aim was to see a staging of Wagner’s Ring at the English National Opera. But in the meantime a senior colleague persuaded me to try the more traditional fare of Cav and Pag (Cavelleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci). It was dreadful — one of those absurd modernist productions the ENO would foist on unwary opera-goers. Fortunately, this disappointment did not put me off returning to the opera.
Even with old warhorses, it is still possible to be innovative, as is demonstrated by Damiano Michieletto’s Royal Opera production of this popular double bill by different composers, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo. He creates a convincing linkage of the two operas, as the travelling players of Pagliacci appear in the village where the gritty story of Cavalleria Rusticana takes place. In each opera a silent scene from the other is played out: in the intermezzo of Cav we see Nedda’s lover Silvio (from Pagliacci) as the junior baker in Mama Lucia’s bakery, and in the Pagliacci intermezzo we see Santuzza talking to a priest before her reconciliation with Mama Lucia in Cavalleria Rusticana.
Productions of the two operas are usually linked, and indeed when Leoncavallo brought Pagliacci to the stage in 1892 he had in mind the brilliant success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana — written to win a prize competition — two years earlier. In its modern setting here, Cavalleria Rusticana displays the gritty reality of a poor community in 1960s southern Italy, beginning with the final scene of a dead body lying on stage. We know what’s coming, therefore, but the lead-up to such scenes are found constantly in modern journalism, and both these operas are in the Italian post-romantic tradition of opera verismo, reflecting the coarse reality of everyday life.
Pagliacci, about a group of itinerant players going from village to village, uses doubles that appear on the performing stage of its second act while the real performers are off-stage. The play they are putting on mirrors the real life situation of the troupe where Canio’s wife Nedda decides to run away with her lover Silvio. Excellent ghostly lighting in the back-stage scenes, where the cast climb through the mirror in Canio’s dressing room, and Canio sees the (on-stage) audience as conspirators in his humiliation.
Musically this was an unadulterated treat under the baton of Daniel Oren, bringing out the theatricality of Cav and the more subtle drama of Pag, where Canio tells Nedda that, blinded by passion he had hoped for sympathy if not for love, before calling her a vile whore. The villagers shout bravo as they still think they are seeing a theatrically convincing play, but as Nedda still refuses to name her lover, Canio stabs her knowing that Silvio in the audience will be forced to reveal himself. He jumps onto the stage, and Canio makes it a double murder, before announcing to the audience La commedia è finita.
Among an excellent cast Dmitri Platanias as Tonio in Pagliacci delivered an utterly gripping aria to the on-stage audience, promising a great performance to come. Indeed it was, and with Anna Princeva showing huge charm and theatricality as a beautiful Nedda, and Andrzej Filończyk and Jorge de León singing strongly as Silvio and Canio, Pagliacci ended the evening to immense applause. That applause applied equally to the terrific performance of Cavalleria Rusticana in the first half, with Roberto Alagna a hugely compelling Turiddu and Aleksandra Kurzak as his wife Santuzza. Rachael Wilson as his lover Lola, Elena Zilio as his mother Mamma Lucia, and Dmitri Platanias as Alfio the carter, made a formidable cast.
Opera verismo offers a terrific spectacle and should never be done in the way I first saw it, with meretricious directorial insights. This is high-octane opera for audiences that want to be moved — and we were.
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