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.
And then there is another great pairing: Bryan and Bryan. That is, the US tenor Bryan Hymel, in both operas as swaggering Turiddu and as Canio – the cuckolded player. Both performances hold great power and musicality, in the tradition of the great Italian tenors who have made the major arias household favourites outside the opera house.
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.
We see design by Paolo Fantin and costumes by Carla Teti that have the same eye for detail. And as Turiddu's mother Lucia, Elena Zilio gives an acting masterclass: the clenched fists and head-back silent howl of grief straight out of Giotto's frescos of the crucifixion.
See this Cav for that alone, and you get Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča's ripe Santuzza, Mark S Doss's impetuous Alfio and Martina Belli's inviting Lola added into the bargain.
American tenor Bryan Hymel as Canio in Pagliacci Photo: Catherine Ashmore
In Pagliacci, the star turn alongside Bryan Hymel is British baritone Simon Keenlyside – another consummate actor, whose voice we have heard little in this verismo repertoire. He is loose-limbed and sinister as the unlovable Tonio (but beautiful of voice), tormenting Italian soprano Carmen Giannatttasio's gorgeous Nedda. No wonder she prefers Andrzej Filończyk's very pleasing Silvio.
The play within a play is not entirely successful – there is too great a contrast between the players and their characters, and their stage is very far back – but you can float on the bergamot and orange-blossom perfume that emanates from the playing of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Daniel Oren.
If you are a Cav and Pag nut, this one is a must. If you are thinking of dipping your toe into opera this Christmas or as a New Year resolution, start here: you'll wait a long time for an introduction as good as this.
Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci are sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances are on 6, 9, 12,15, 19 and 22 Dec; and on 6, 9, 13 January. Some cast members change for later performances.
|What||Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci review , Royal Opera House|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
02 Dec 17 – 13 Jan 18, 10 performances, including three 12PM matinees
|Price||£6 - £195|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|