Most operas have the (unfair) reputation of being long, drawn-out affairs that require multiple hours of concentration. While it is true that there are some gargantuan opuses in the standard repertory, others get the job done in just an hour. Often multiple of these compact one-act works are presented together to offer a full night of entertainment. The most famous of these pairings is of two Italian operas composed within three years of each other, just before the turn of the last century – “Cavalleria rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “I pagliacci”. Last month, these two classics were presented in a production by Sir David McVicar for the first performance in a month-long run at the Metropolitan Opera.
While the operas were not originally intended to be presented together, each is a gripping drama focused on the extraordinary trials of seemingly ordinary people. McVicar capitalized on these similarities and set both on the same piazza in a small Southern Italian town roughly fifty years apart. Before “Cavalleria” begins, the peasant woman Santuzza has been excommunicated due to her dalliances outside of wedlock with the local villager, Turiddu. Over the course of the opera, not only does she grapple with her outsider status, she must also face the revelation that Turiddu has abandoned her and taken up with a married woman.
After the intermission, we return to the same square, now just after the Second World War, as a troupe of clowns and acrobats arrives to entertain the townspeople. Unfortunately, Canio, the leader of the performers, discovers that his wife has moved on to another, younger lover, and his jealously and rage ultimately come to head during that evening’s performance with tragic results.
It was often hard to believe that the same director created both stagings. McVicar’s take on “Cavalleria” was stiff and drab, bereft of any of the genuine emotional urgency that throbs on every page of Mascagni’s score. Instead, much of the direction relied on the oversized melodramatic gestures that did little to convey the truth that lies at the piece’s heart. In contrast, his “Pagliacci” was inspired! At times, the production was incredibly funny and engaging, and these mirthful moments helped make the heartrending climax so much more impactful.
As the tortured Santuzza, soprano-turned-mezzosoprano Violetta Urmana sang with a warm, rounded tone that revealed the character’s inner virtue. Unfortunately, the upper limits of the role stressed her vocal capabilities and resulted in strained high notes. Even though his singing lacked much dimension, South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee still brought an Italianate color to his performance of Turiddu; however, his reliance on insincere histrionics undermined his portrayal.
Mezzosoprano Ginger Costa-Jackson brought a supple sound to her role as Lola, the new object of Turiddu’s affection, while Ambroggio Maestri’s robust baritone seemed underserved in his somewhat wooden interpretation of Lola’s husband Alfio.
This season, tenor Roberto Alagna celebrates two decades since his Met debut, and he returned on this occasion as Canio, a role in which he has performed to acclaim around the globe. Alagna’s clean timbre has become clouded with time, and he spent much of the night forcefully delivering his music. His true strengths lay in his skill as an actor; he deftly portrayed the uncontrollable mix of love, anger, and despair that ultimately lead the character to commit murder.
As his wife Nedda, soprano Barbara Frittoli struggled to execute the role’s higher passages and offered only rare moments of penetrating singing in the middle of her range. George Gagnidze expertly rendered the dual personae of Tonio, a lecherous clown who forces himself upon Nedda backstage but is nothing but laughs before the public. With a strong, virile baritone, Alexey Lavrov brought much-needed heat as Silvio, Nedda’s ardent lover.
Audiences have come to rely on Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi for the wealth of color that he can draw from his musicians, and this performance was no exception. Luisi guided the orchestra and chorus though a reading of both pieces that was imbued with musical depth and dramatic integrity.
These operas are classics of the Italian operatic repertory and feature two of the best scores of the late nineteenth century. The music, along with the brilliant staging of “I pagliacci,” should appeal to Columbia students interested in the art form; however, the inconsistencies throughout cannot be avoided. It may be better to wait for another work from the same period to be performed later in the season – possibly the new production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” which opens in just a few weeks.
Performances of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I pagliacci” run through February 26. More information can be found online at www.metopera.org.