United Kingdom Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Daniel Oren (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 30.11.2023. (JR)
Director – Damiano Michieletto
Revival director – Noa Naamat
Set designer – Paolo Fantin
Costume designer – Carla Teti
Lighting designer – Alessandro Carletti
Chorus director – William Spaulding
Turiddu – Roberto Alagna
Mamma Lucia – Elena Zilio
Santuzza – Aleksandra Kurzak
Alfio – Dimitri Platanias
Lola – Rachael Wilson
Tonio – Dimitri Platanias
Canio – Jorge de Léon
Nedda – Anna Princeva
Beppe – Mikeldi Atxalandabaso
Silvio – Andrzej Filończyk
A welcome third revival of the rightly highly acclaimed production by Damiano Micheletto of this regular pairing of two well-known verismo gems, affectionately known as ‘Cav and Pag’.
The contemporary production is simply splendid. The Italian production team bring the Calabrian village to life for both operas, played in the same village on the same day. Cavalleria takes place in the morning, Pagliacci in the afternoon and evening. The set for Cavalleria is the exterior of a simple house and interior of a Panificio, a bakery (Mascagni was a baker’s son), a church hall and artists’ dressing room for Pagliacci. It all works a treat, especially the comic touches (the chorus mistress, for instance). Anyone who has been to Calabria or the hill villages in Sicily will recognise the scene. It pays to have an all-Italian production team. The costumes look highly authentic.
The excellent programme contains many fascinating articles, one on the pairing of the two operas since their composition. The New York Times referred to the operas as ‘Siamese twins’, the Daily Mail, more prosaically, as the ‘ham and eggs’ of opera. One fact I did not know was that it took the Metropolitan Opera in New York over 50 years to use the same tenor in both operas – Beniamino Gigli, no less. Another article highlights the proud, powerful and fearless Calabrians, their poverty, resilience in the face of natural disasters and the Mafia, and the fundamental importance of their Catholicism, where the lives of local saints and Madonnas are kept alive through elaborate ritual processions. One such procession is central to Mascagni’s opera. A coup de théâtre occurs when the Madonna suddenly comes alive and points an accusatory finger at Santuzza – she has had sex before marriage.
The production is full of clever invention. Nedda and Silvio appear, in silent roles of course, in Cavalleria; one does wonder who the loving couple are, especially when Silvio presents her lover with a pink scarf. All is revealed at the beginning of Pagliacci when Canio sees Nedda in the same pink scarf and tears it from her, beginning to suspect that she has an admirer. Nedda appears at one stage behind the dressing room mirror.
The voices are a mixed bag. Roberto Alagna is clearly not the singer he was and the notes at the top sound strained, the lower ones are, however, still full of strength. Aleksandra Kurzak is in majestic vocal form, and her acting skills are an added bonus. I found Dimitri Platanias a rather wooden actor and the voice (in both operas) without much warmth. Elena Zilio, now in her eighties, was absolutely splendid (she too makes a silent appearance in Pagliacci showing her consoling Santuzza, who reveals she is pregnant). Rachael Wilson as Lola entertained us with a warm and sultry voice and added allure.
In Pagliacci, Jorge de Léon, from Tenerife, making his house debut, was a fairly late replacement for Fabio Sartori; de Léon will take over all performances. I have heard finer accounts of ‘Vesti la giubba’ but he is a very dependable tenor. Anna Princeva was the vocal highlight, a crisp, bright soprano and another with superlative acting skills. Andrzej Filończyk made a sturdy Silvio, Mikeldi Atxalandabaso an excellent Beppe.
Veteran Israeli conductor Daniel Oren was in full command and his long, flailing arms brought added energy to his players. A particular strength was his ability to bring the volume right down to a magical whisper, although at times I could have done with more bite and volume. Orchestral playing was beyond reproach as was the singing of the chorus.
There are six more performances before Christmas, I could not think of a better Christmas present for opera lovers.