After his scandalous Guillaume Tell earlier this year – pilloried for a lack of fidelity and gratuitous sexual
violence – director Damiano Michieletto had much to prove to English audiences.
With this double-bill of short verismo
pieces, he has managed it with aplomb. The boos have been supplanted by bravos.
These highly wrought tragedies, clad in
late romantic bombast, run the risk of becoming comically melodramatic.
Michieletto and his cast manage to situate them in a genuinely emotional place.
The mid-to-late twentieth century setting, pitched somewhere between La Strada and Elena Ferrante, does well
to convey the quotidian of Southern Italian lives.
The two operas have been lightly
intermingled, with intermezzi used to expand the story
and a shared cast and choir of villagers. Deft rotating sets allow for fluid action, with Cavalleria’s overgrown village bakery
giving way to something more claustrophobic in Pagliacci. To add a further sense of circularity, Cavalleria is retooled to begin at the moment of its ending, a neat trick that transforms the remainder into a search for an explanation. The crowd scenes are spectacular, especially Pagliacci’s Easter pageant and finale. There are some decisions that might divide audiences – is reuniting Santuzza and
Lucia in Pagliacci’s intermezzo emotionally satisfying or detrimental to Cavalleria's ambiguous ending? – but they are universally intriguing.
The flashes of abuse here feel chillingly
real; this is a world dominated by thuggish men. There's genuine terror in Pagliacci when Tonio tries to seduce Nedda, or when Canio tiptoes towards his wife and her lover for their pivotal encounter. As
Santuzza, Eva-Maria Westbroek hunches and hovers, burdened by her shame; you
can feel the desperation in her voice, especially when she interacts with Elena
Zilio’s excellent Mamma Lucia. Carmen Giannattasio does well in bringing out
Nedda’s complex character, while Dmitri Platanias shines in Alfio’s rollicking Il cavallo scaplita and Tonio’s
Prologue. The peak, however, might well be Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Vesti la giubba, which makes Canio’s
breakdown both extravagantly manic and yet entirely human. It’s hard to know
whether to react with sympathy or horror.
As is to be expected from this master of the Italian repertoire, Antonio Pappano conducts the orchestra with characteristic
warmth and grace. The operas may be compact but this is open, direct music that
flies straight to the heart. Those turned off Michieletto by Guillaume Tell should give him a second chance.
Want to know more? Read our preview below.
Hot on the heels of his controversial Royal Opera House debut Guillaume Tell, Italian rabble-rouser Damiano Michieletto is returning to tackle one of the most famous double-bills in operatic history. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892), which remain their respective composer’s most celebrated works, have appeared together since 1893. Despite their comic-sounding titles – ‘Rustic Chivalry’ and ‘Clowns’ – they are both deeply tragic tales, sitting somewhere between the eloquent melancholy of Verdi and the verismo melodrama of Puccini. Sir Antonio Pappano, director of music, will conduct his only production of the autumn season. If this is anything like Michieletto's Guillaume Tell, which drew opening night opprobrium for a scene of graphic sexual violence, expect to be shocked - these are not likely to be productions for the faint-hearted.
Want to explore Covent Garden's Autumn programme?
Cavalleria rusticana, originally set in the nineteenth century but here updated to the late twentieth, is a tale of doomed passion in a small community. The philandering Turiddu’s passionate songs are overheard by an abandoned lover, who precipitates a brutal revenge. In the process, the petty rivalries and desperate poverty of the village is unveiled. Soprano Eva Marie Westbroek (Anna Nicole), a glowing presence at Covent Garden since 2006, plays the jilted Santuzza against Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello). Westbroek recently won plaudits for her Santuzza in David McViar’s New York production, so she is sure to excel here.
Pagliacci is a similarly bleak tale of misapplied passion, though in this case the action takes place within a commedia troupe, a place of illusions and facades a world way from Cavalleria’s naked rusticity. The hunchbacked clown Tonio loves Nedda, but she is carrying on an affair with Silvio. When he is rejected, Tonio decides to tell Nedda’s husband, leading to bloody vengeance. With each singer playing both an actor and that actor’s character in a play, it is a powerful update of the Shakespearean play-within-a-play conceit. Antonenko, Carmen Giannattasio (Maria Stuarda) and Dimitri Platanias (Rigoletto) star.
|What||Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
03 Dec 15 – 01 Jan 16, 7:30 PM – 10:30 PM
|Website||Click here to book via the Royal Opera House|