Cav-Pag double bill at the Met

Review of the Met’s new Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci

Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci are good buddies. I mean, they’re practically twins: they hail from the same general region of the Mediterranean rim, they have a similar male-female social hierarchy, and they settle sexual problems in the same rather blunt and terminal way. They’re not exactly role models for healthy relationships or for the benefits of working things out through marriage counseling, in other words. But then few operas are.

Sir David McVicar and his team, Rae Smith (sets), Moritz Junge (costumes) and Emil Wolk (vaudeville consultant), team members all in their Met debuts, have stripped Cav to the essentials of Greek theater while cluttering Pag with a lot of 1950s Italian film funny business. The stories work, though: the focus of the former adds gravity to the plight of poor Santuzza, the centerpiece of the action; the perpetural motion of the latter is as entertaining as a successful group of low budget traveling clowns should be. And it’s actually pretty silly and amusing, though ultimately teetering on distraction as the noose of the plot tightens. But overall there is no big problem here with the directorial decision

Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) is set in 1900, not that it really matters much, and opens with a troubled Santuzza entering on to a slowly rotating open space surrounded immediately by chairs, but walled in the background by the dark stone buildings of the small town. The mis-en-scene is reminiscent of the style of Wieland Wagner’s early post-war Bayreuth productions of the Ring and Parsifal. The Wagner brothers also liked Greek theater.

The chairs are eventually filled by members of the small community, all dressed anonymously in black. At times a long table rises out of the floor, usually when Mamma Lucia, Turiddu’s mother, is on stage. She owns the tavern. The men gather, drink, dance, and pose like roosters in the coop. Spare, yes, but the dramatic essence of Cav is not missing in Sir David’s production.

Eva-Maria Westbroek is Santuzza

Eva-Maria Westbroek is Santuzza

Not only is Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Santuzza broken by her ‘condition,’ but also by the mocking she receives at the hands of Lola, Turiddu’s new mistress (also Alfio’s wife) and by Turiddu’s indifference toward her when the flirtatious Lola strolls though. Santuzza rats on him to Alfio, thus leading to Turiddu’s death. This production adds weight to impact of her decision. Westbroek well meets the dramatic demands of the role.

Marcelo Álvarez’s Turiddu is cleanly sung and also acted well, though sufficient tension was missing in his last moments. Look, Turiddu is a nice fellow, attractive, probably reasonably well off, son of the tavern owner, loves his mother, not a fighter…Not surprising the women like him. But Alfio, sung by George Gagnidze, is a rough man and, worse, a wronged man and, even worse, it’s not because he hasn’t been paid by a client for hauling stuff, not wronged by trifles, but a man wronged because someone else is sleeping with his wife. Bad, in other words. I have to think Turiddu should not be taking the challenge to a duel as lightly as Álvarez seems to here, viva il vino spumeggiante notwithstanding. Mamma Lucia is sung by Jane Bunnell; Lola is sung by a very saucy Ginger Costa-Jackson.

Pagliacci is updated to 1949, a period fans of the old black and white Italian films or, more recently, Cinema Paradiso will relate to. Whereas this production places the drama of Cav dead center, the drama of Pag is somewhat diffused by genuinely funny business on stage and also by laughter in the theater. It’s the show within a show after all. The players actually keep the spirit of “the show must go on” until the bitter end. That’s really what both Beppe and Tonio advise Canio after he discovers Nedda in the arms of Silvio. Must go on until you no longer can…

George Gagnidze is Tonio in  Pagliacci

George Gagnidze is Tonio in Pagliacci

George Gagnidze is now Tonio the funny man. He appears before a bright blue curtain, center spotlight, mike in hand to sing his famous Prologue, but stage business with three clowns and the mike cord pulls us from the gravity of what the prologue lays forth. Marcelo Álvarez’s Canio is a played as an entertainer who drinks too much, which perhaps is why his relationship with his wife Nedda has fallen apart. Kudos to Álvarez for differentiating the two characters in this double bill. But, again, I want more weight and tension in those last moments. While the length of Pag (1892) was inspired by the success of Cav (1890), the musical and dramatic weight of Pag was inspired more by Verdi’s Otello (1887).

Patricia Racette and Marcello Alvarez in  Pagliacci

Patricia Racette and Marcello Alvarez in Pagliacci

Patricia Racette is a Nedda who functions, who puts up with a relationship and business she wants out of; Andrew Stenson is a light hearted Beppe; Lucas Meachem is a forceful Silvio. Marty Keiser, Andy Sapora, and Joshua Wynter are Canio’s excellent troupe.

Same town backdrop, but the props for Pag include a performance truck, lots of bags, traveling stage sets, curtains, and props. And still the chairs for the evening’s fare. As one who likes clutter…maybe ‘tolerates’ is the better word…I would feel right at home on this stage.

Fabio Luisi is an exceptionally intelligent musician, whose work at the Met I eagerly anticipate. His take on Cav was, like his Wagner, balanced, broad and measured, always articulated instrumentally, never heavy; likewise with Pag but with the added gaiety of the clowns. From where I sat in the house it was difficult to gauge the overall volume and richness of the orchestra. Maybe next time.

The essentials are all there. The camera work for the approaching HD telecast will most likely intensify Cav with close ups to shrink the large stage space and clarify Pag by highlighting the central action amidst the ceaseless goings on. Enjoy.

Pagliacci is in the top 100 on my list of favorite operas, even more so as I have matured.

Photos: Cory Weaver.

Review performance on the special date of: April 14, 2015.

Be advised: the performance’s running time is a tad over 3 hours, including one intermission and a pause for the scene change in Pagliacci.

The crocuses are up!

It hasn’t snown in weeks! (Why not ‘snown’? Rhymes with ‘sewn’ and ‘shown.’)

Make it special. Because it should be.