Kurzak and Alagna bring long-awaited star power to Michieletto’s Covent Garden Cav & Pag

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana & Leoncavallo, Pagliacci: Soloists, Members of the Youth Opera Company, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 8.7.2022. (JPr)

Roberto Alagna (Canio) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda) in Pagliacci © Tristram Kenton

Director – Damiano Michieletto
Revival director – Noa Naamat
Set designer – Paolo Fantin
Costume designer – Carla Teti
Lighting designer – Alessandro Carletti

Cavalleria rusticana

Cast included:
Turiddu – SeokJong Baek
Santuzza – Aleksandra Kurzak
Alfio – Dimitri Platanias
Lola – Aigul Akhmetshina
Mamma Lucia – Elena Zilio


Cast included:
Canio – Roberto Alagna
Tonio – Dimitri Platanias
Nedda – Aleksandra Kurzak
Silvio – Mattia Olivieri
Beppe – Egor Zhuravskii

Damiano Michieletto’s Olivier Award-winning productions of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci were premiered in 2015 and then put on again in 2017 but not since. Here they were splendidly revived by former Jette Parker Young Artist Noa Naamat and continue to justify that Olivier!

The nineteenth century was ending, and audiences turned from Wagner’s gods and heroes to embrace post-Verdian verismo with its stories that reflected real-life happenings. The birth of this movement came with the premiere of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana in Rome on 17 May 1890. It was soon twinned with Leoncavallo’s 1892 Pagliacci and together they caused verismo to sweep Europe influencing many diverse art forms. New York’s Metropolitan Opera first paired the works in 1893 and they were first seen together at Covent Garden the following year except the order we are used to today was reversed.

The Cav & Pag double-header soon proved as popular as the regularly performed Puccini operas or genuine Verdi masterpieces in the affections of opera lovers, though recently they have fallen somewhat out of favour. Before Michieletto’s staging of Cav & Pag they had not been performed together by the Royal Opera for more than 25 years. From around that time I have some exhilarating memories of Plácido Domingo (Turiddu/Canio), Giuseppe Giacomini (Turiddu), Jon Vickers (Canio), Pauline Tinsley and Josephine Barstow (as Santuzza) and Piero Cappuccilli (Alfio/Tonio); several sadly no longer with us. Perhaps a reassessment of the operas is overdue and what Michieletto does with them can only help.

Modern audiences are increasing overdosed on naturalism whenever the houselights dim in the opera house (particularly think of Simon Stone’s current oeuvre), as well as straight theatre, and so these operas with their tales of love-triangles and bloody revenge – which could easily be written off as mere lurid melodramatic potboilers – are perfect for some revisionism. They still provide fantastic opportunities for singers with big voices to give ‘heart on their sleeve’ can belto performances which can go a long way to remind us how coming regularly to the opera can be such a relief from everyday life’s humdrum same old, same old, especially with the current UK news focussing sadly less and less on the trouble in Ukraine and more and more – to the point of obsession – on Boris Johnson and Covid cases.

According to the original libretto for Cavalleria rusticana (trans. ‘Rustic Chivalry’) we are in a Sicilian village where the soldier Turiddu is sleeping with Lola, the wife of the local cart-driver Alfio, while he is away. He is also cheating on his erstwhile girlfriend Santuzza, who begs him to give Lola up. When he refuses, she tells Alfio the situation and he kills Turiddu in a knife fight. After an opening when nothing much happens for about 20 minutes; for the remaining hour Mascagni rarely wastes a second of his one-act opera of almost symphonic beauty.

As for Pagliacci, there is a prologue from Tonio the clown in a travelling commedia dell’arte troupe who will subsequently be shown – as a person of disabilities – hobbling with a stick. They are stopping off in Calabria to perform for the villagers and there is an opportunity for Nedda, the beautiful and unhappy wife of Canio (the troupe’s intensely jealous leader) to be reunited with her secret lover, Silvio, and they agree to run off together at the end of the evening. Nedda belittles Tonio and scorns his advances, and subsequently he overhears what Nedda and Silvia are planning and tells Canio. While they are performing a stage farce – that is coincidentally about a wife’s betrayal and mirrors the offstage love triangle – Canio stabs to death both Nedda and her lover Silvio, who has leapt onto the stage to save her, leaving Tonio to deliver one of the most famous lines in all opera, ‘La commedia è finite!’ (‘The play is over!’).

I have made the comparison before how, like Mascagni, Leoncavallo possessed the basic essentials for writing a successful opera, a strong sense of colour, the feeling for melody, dramatic force, declamatory power, and musical characterisation. Compared to Cavalleria rusticana there are no longueurs in Pagliacci and the drama never flags, though this is not to say everything is perfect since Leoncavallo does have his faults. His music often recalls other composers, Wagner included, and his emotional gear changes are occasionally over-exaggerated and the orchestration rather noisy. On the other hand, his dramatic grip is greater than Mascagni’s, as is his power of characterisation as revealed by the superb cast for this revival.

It is very rare these days that Covent Garden puts some genuine star power on stage to match those names mentioned above from the late-1970s and 1980s, but it was a hark back to that level of performance. To be honest that was entirely accidental since Roberto Alagna was the third choice as Canio and his wife Aleksandra Kurzak was second choice as Santuzza and Nedda. Covid robbed the audience of the presence of Jonas Kaufmann who was responsible for the premium ticket prices but no one could feel short-changed how everything played out. Based on how wonderful SeokJong Baek (Turiddu) and the ageless Alagna (Canio) were could anyone really think Kaufmann – at this stage of his career – would have sung both roles as well as them.

Michieletto updates the action to sometime in the second half of the twentieth century and creates a true coupling of the two disparate operas. In Cavalleria rusticana – after a static opening showing the dead Turiddu being mourned by his distraught mother (Mamma Lucia) – the walls of a baker’s (Panificio) are soon plastered with posters for that evening’s performance of Pagliacci. This bakery scenario with its bread ovens initially seems a misstep, but we get used to it. At least it helps engineer the first meeting between the lovers-to-be in Pagliacci because Silvio is shown here as one of the bakers who sets his sights on Nedda who is putting up those posters. Alfio is just a wheeler-dealer who trundles on in a vintage sedan car with a boot full of possibly bootlegged goods he is happy to give away. This includes a scarf Silvio gives Nedda during the Intermezzo and will be noticed by Canio in Pagliacci. Then in the Intermezzo of that opera, it is Santuzza (and a priest) who feature as she is reconciled with Mamma Lucia when it is revealed she is expecting her dead son’s child. Turiddu is not stabbed but is shot to death as this Cavalleria rusticana comes full circle. (Since Kurzak was singing both Santuzza and Nedda she required a body double at certain points in this production).

Aleksandra Kurzak (front left, Santuzza) in Cavalleria rusticana © Tristram Kenton

Paolo Fantin’s sets almost continually rotate and the one for Cav cuts down the space on stage and – in the increasingly modern way – crowd scenes are often restricted to near the footlights. Michieletto’s other intriguing ideas include the statue of the Virgin Mary coming to a (sort of) life during the Easter Hymn – when Kurzak almost shook with religious fervour – to point accusingly at her Santuzza. Also, the young members of the choir in Cav will appear in a passion play in Pav’s school hall. And Michieletto almost seamlessly interweaves Pagliacci’s drunken delusions with the supposed performance for a viscerally engaging denouement to Pav as the stage audience flees in terror and bright lights are trained on us in the actual audience.

SeokJong Baek excited many with his Samson recently, though I was a little more ambivalent (review here). He is a fledgling tenor of immense potential though currently with little volume control, although his Drinking Song suggested more light and shade is possible. Turiddu treats Santuzza appallingly and Baek created a believable cad and deserved the comeuppance he got in the end. Roberto Alagna is in remarkably fresh-sounding voice for a tenor with such a long and illustrious career and he relished the role of Canio who – despite being literally heels over head in love with Nedda (he does a cartwheel!) – is volcanically jealous and Nedda suffers at his hands. Alagna had totally embraced the heartbroken clown persona by the time he sang Canio’s famous lament ‘Vesti la giubba’ and it was heart-rending and I am not sure I have heard it better sung. Aleksandra Kurzak’s rose to all Santuzza’s musical and dramatic challenges and clearly her impressive soprano voice has gained more weight compared to when she first came to prominence. Her Santuzza seemed almost on the brink of insanity at Turiddu’s cruelty. Kurzak then believably enacted Nedda’s longing for freedom and desire for her devoted Silvio (the youthfully ardent Mattia Olivieri) and her singing appropriately now had more sensuality, colour and rhythmic flexibility. Truthfully, it was a masterclass in how these roles can be sung.

Dimitri Platanias was a boorish Alfio and did the best he could with a one-dimensional character and his Tonio might have elicited more sympathy for his issues – and all Nedda’s putdowns – had he not brutally assaulted her at one point. However, he showed a different side to his strong powerful baritone and rather dour persona with a compellingly nuanced ‘Si può? Si può?’ to set the tone for Pagliacci. Elsewhere there were stunning vignettes from the 80plus – though seemingly ageless too – Elena Zilio who loves her errant son in Cav as only a mother can, and then is compassionate for Santuzza’s plight in Pag. Aigul Akhmetshina was a captivatingly sultry Lola.

Credit to the chorus of children and adults who sang out resoundingly and, for me, it was one of best of any recent operas I have seen and heard conducted by Antonio Pappano. As with all the best Cav & Pag conductors he unashamedly embraced the vulgarity, as well as all the lyricism and subtlety of the two scores. With his orchestra on top form he wasn’t afraid to let the music breathe and build organically to its frequent impassioned climaxes. As you might expect, Pappano luxuriated in the symphonic nature of the opening of Cavalleria rusticana and as beautiful as it sounded you soon wish Mascagni had got on with it a bit quicker.

Jim Pritchard

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