Highly Cinematic Mascagni/Leoncavallo Double Bill from The Met

United StatesUnited States Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo, Pagliacci: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Fabio Luisi (conductor), Relayed to the Odeon Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 25.4.2015. (JPr)

Cavalleria photo credit c Metropolitan Opera and Cory Weaver
Cavalleria rusticana (c) Metropolitan Opera/Cory Weaver

Cavalleria rusticana (Cast)
Turiddu: Marcelo Álvarez
Santuzza: Eva-Maria Westbroek
Mamma Lucia: Jane Bunnell
Alfio: George Gagnidze
Lola: Ginger Costa-Jackson

Pagliacci (Cast)
Tonio: George Gagnidze
Canio: Marcelo Álvarez
Beppe: Andrew Stenson
Nedda: Patricia Racette
Silvio: Lucas Meachem

Director: Sir David McVicar
Set designer: Rae Smith
Costume designer: Moritz Junge
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Choreographer: Andrew George
Vaudeville consultant (Pagliacci): Emil Wolk

Live in HD director: Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host: Susan Graham

To complete the 2014-15 Met Live season a performance of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci was broadcast in a new production of the popular double bill by Sir David McVicar who has toned down his previous willingness to shock and is now challenging Richard Jones as the new Sir Jonathan Miller for solidly detailed, generally accessible and frequently updated opera productions. This new staging replaced one by Franco Zeffirelli that had lasted over forty years and I doubt whether anything by McVicar will last half as long. The insights into backstage life at the Met that these cinema extravaganzas provide remains endlessly fascinating. There are still so many – too many – involved during any scene changes and there appears the need – even with the simplest of things – to give as many people something to do as possible. There was a rotating platform used for Cavalleria that was shown being dismantled wooden plank by wooden plank and in Pagliacci a stage was attached to the side a truck and needed – for some reasons – dozens of people to do it. So the Met appears not to have gained much by jettisoning another of its realistically monumental Zeffirelli shows.

McVicar has set the two operas in the same Sicilian village but some fifty years apart in time. Mascagni’s popular 1890 Cavalleria – a seminal work of the Italian verismo movement – is often twinned with Leoncavallo’s 1892 Pagliacci as both deal with love, deceit, betrayal and murderous revenge. In the former we have Turiddu who has recently returned from military service to find his fiancée Lola has married the carter Alfio while he was away. By way of revenge, Turiddu has seduced Santuzza, a young woman in the village who continues to love him desperately, even though Lola – who is jealous of her love rival – has begun an adulterous affair with Turiddu. A tragic end for Turiddu is precipitated when Alfio finds out what has been going on.

Pagliacci involves some commedia dell’arte players stopping off to perform in a small village. Canio, the clown, is a jealous man and mistrusts his flighty wife, Nedda. She spurns the unpleasant advances of another of the performers, the fool, Tonio, and anyway she has become smitten by one of the villagers, Silvio. With Tonio’s help Canio finds out and during their play-within-a-play life transcends art as the enraged Canio questions Nedda and (spoilers alert!) kills her and her lover with a knife only for Tonio to utter the famous final line: ‘La commedia è finita!’ (‘The comedy is finished!’)

Rae Smith’s set for Cavalleria is framed by the huge earthy stone walls of a Sicilian church or even possibly a castle. It is about 1900 and we first see the central platform – which we soon find out can rotate – surrounded by chairs. The townspeople – in Moritz Junge’s everyday costumes with the men in black suits – wander in and sit down. There is a strong sense of everyone unknowing everyone else’s business and how their lives are ruled by religion … or at the very least a strict code of honour. No sunlight impinges on this dark and foreboding setting and with Santuzza ever-present throughout I wondered whether it was just her nightmare we were seeing as she revisited recent traumatic events.

For Pagliacci we move forward to a dusty village square with a bar in the 1950s and the travelling players become a troupe of crazy vaudevillians who have arrived in a broken down truck piled high with suitcases, costumes and props. In front a bright blue and gold curtain that brought back memories of the TV shows of Morecambe and Wise, McVicar turns the prologue – when Tonio, in the guise of his commedia character Taddeo wants to convince the audience that actors are made of flesh and blood and experience real emotion – into a very familiar variety routine as he sings with a microphone while three stagehands try to pull him back to the wings by pulling on the cord. Later, the comedy becomes a full-blown pantomime complete with gaudy costumes, a stuffed chicken, a shaving-cream fight, much mugging, pratfalls, unconventional exits, as well as, Nedda made to look like Gypsy Rose Lee fallen on slightly hard times.

Pagliacci (1)-500
The Met’s Pagliacci

As always I can only judge the musical performance as heard through loudspeakers but this double bill appeared to have the perfect maestro on the podium in the Met’s principal conductor, Fabio Luisi. There were certainly no other Italians among his principal singers – that he suggested in his backstage interview were the best available – and he was crucial in the success of the performance. He conducted his wonderful Met orchestra with obvious affection for both scores, allied to impressive discipline, clarity and idiomatic colour. Whilst there was tremendous fire at times it never veered toward over-the-top ‘blood and thunder’. I suspect rarely before has the shimmering orchestral opening to Pagliacci Act II  ever so obviously revealed how much it owes to the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin than it did here under Fabio Luisi!

The conductor was well supported by all the singers in the leading roles and the always committed Met chorus. For this new ‘Cav/Pag’ Marcelo Álvarez took the lead tenor roles in both works. Recently at the launch of the new Royal Opera House season Antonio Pappano was at pains to remind the press that there are leading tenors other than Jonas Kaufmann! Indeed, he went on to mention in glowing terms Aleksandrs Antonenko (the Met’s next Otello) who will also sing them both in next season’s new productions of these same operas. There is also the burly Álvarez who used to be a regular visitor to Covent Garden but who has not been back for some considerable time. He overcame the formidable vocal challenge with considerable aplomb and was authoritative and impassioned throughout, singing stylishly with power and ringing top notes.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (who will also be Santuzza in London) did not sound at her best. She was scheduled to sing Isolde at Bayreuth this summer but will not be there now and hopefully her voice can get some much needed rest as it sounds as if she has been doing too much. Her reasonably convincing acting as the disgraced and despised Santuzza, as well as, her general artistry are not in doubt, however, at times she sounded tired, short-breathed and there was a little bit of a vocal wobble. Also doubling-up was George Gagnidze and he is an imposingly large, googly-eyed singer with an impressively dark – gruff rather than velvety – baritone voice that he employed well to bring Alfio and Tonio to life. In Cavalleria the veteran Jane Bunnell was a deeply sympathetic Mamma Lucia, Turiddu’s hard-working mother, who is in charge of the inn and Ginger Costa-Jackson sang well too and as Lola captivatingly slinked about totally oblivious to the danger of rousing her jealous husband’s ire.

Completing the Pagliacci cast Patricia Racette as Canio’s wide, Nedda, proved a real trouper and threw herself into all she was asked to do. That feistiness extended to her singing even if there was not the freedom at the top of her voice there may have been in former years. Her character was conceived as slightly blowsy with her better days behind her and Ms Racette captured this perfectly. It was perfectly understandable she would prefer the tall handsome Silvio over her alcoholic and abusive husband. Silvio was sung with great earnestness by Lucas Meachem who does have an appealing, smoothly lyrical, baritone voice. Finally, Andrew Stenson brought sweet-voiced boyish innocence to Beppe the Harlequin in the troupe.

For me Pagliacci was more emotionally engaging – comedically and dramatically – than the more claustrophobic and sterile Cavalleria rusticana. Both operas proved highly cinematic through Gary Halvorson’s typically close-up direction – and with the cameras concentrating on the faces most of the time the turning of the platform probably wasn’t nearly as distracting as I suspect it might have been for those in the theatre. If this was a ‘plus’ then the ‘minus’ was that the mechanics of singing their difficult parts – and the effort needed to fill a house the size of the Met – was evident throughout on the leading singers’ faces and this did distract from the naturalism of what we were seeing.

Jim Pritchard

Check out your local cinema listings for details of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD 2015-16 season.

Leave a Comment