Short, intense and highly flavoured, the two stories of small town crimes of passion were in the vanguard of opera's new realism. Now, the return to the Royal Opera House of its 2015 Olivier award-winning 1970s-set production means a sun-soaked trip for the audience to a single, poor, tight-knit community in southern Italy.
The church and the bakery are at the heart of village life in this stupendous Cavalleria Rusticana, and the largely Italian production team cook up a scene where gossip and worship exist side by side. Daily routine is enlivened by the arrival of a spivvy car, its boot stuffed with handbags and partywear. Its wide-boy driver, Alfio, is as yet unaware that the local Lothario, Turiddu, has been taking advantage of his absence by getting to know the tumbling tresses of his Gina Lollobrigida lookalike wife, Lola.
When Turiddu's desolate, jilted girlfriend Santuzza betrays him, only violence is assured. Similarly, when the on-stage flirtations and jealousies within a group of travelling players in Pagliacci spill over into their real lives and back on to the stage, the townspeople who crowd into the church hall's make-shift theatre are denied a happy ending.
The genius of this dual production, wonderful to look at with its authentically worn walls and dated fashions – the 1970s in a village the north has left behind is more like 1950s Britain, but with sunshine – is its unifying transition from opera to opera, the same townspeople witnessing two deaths, the posters for the forthcoming entertainment Pagliacci plastered up in the blistering streets where Turiddu and Alfio quarrel.
Under Damiano Michieletto's meticulous direction, the fine chorus flows like a real tide of people in and out of set pieces. Most notable is the famous Easter Hymn, sung movingly at a ceremonial procession in which crushed Santuzza alone sees a statue of the Madonna point woodenly and accusingly at her.
Roberto Alagna heads the cast of the second opera of the evening, the backstage drama Pagliacci. The unlovable Tonio torments Nedda, who prefers pleasing Silvio. You just know this is not going to end well...
Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci are sung in Italian with English surtitles. Performances are on 11, 14, 18, 21, 35, 29 April; 2 May. The performance on 21 April is screened live to cinemas all over London: click here for more details.
|What||Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci, Royal Opera House|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
11 Apr 20 – 02 May 20, seven performances; 7PM start 11 April
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|