Singers engaged for the opening night fell away one by one, as illness struck. Out when star tenor Jonas Kaufmann, out went the superbly sensitive soprano Ermonela Jaho....
But all's well that ends well. Into Cav sprang the exciting rising tenor SeokJong Baek, who has already proved himself earlier this year stepping in for an injured Nicky Spence in Samson and Dalila. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak did the double, singing both ex-girlfriend Santuzza in Cav and actress Nedda in Pag. And old hand Roberto Alagna returned to the role of Canio, Nedda's cuckolded husband.
Passion proves deadly in a small Italian town. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Fish and chips, Fortnum and Mason, Cav and Pag: you can have one without the other, but together they add up to more, locked in a permanent musical embrace almost since their individual first performances in 1890 and 1892.
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, swaggeringly sung by Dimitri Platanias, 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 former 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.
SeokJong Baek rejects Aleksandra Kurzak's Santuzza. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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. Two silent characters in Cav emerge as Nedda and her lover Silvio in Pag, and Santuzza makes a surprising return.
Kurzak playing two contrasting women in this demanding double bill conveys a fragile, damaged Santuzza with a core of passion and a gnawing sense of right and wrong, while her Nedda is flamboyant and headstrong. Baek's Turiddu is outwardly callous but inwardly stricken. Platnias returns as predatory and vengeful Tonio.
Only Alagna's pedestrian Canio tears-of-a-clown aria 'Vesti la giubba' lost sight of the emotion that throbs constantly through the evening. Fabio Sartori sings the role in later performances.
Mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina is outstanding as Lola. Photo: Tristram Kenton
The Royal Opera House's Jette Parker scheme has nurtured many fine talents, and in one recent graduate, mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina, it can boast an exceptional singer. Her rich, vibrant voice, striking stage presence and outstanding musicality make her the consummate artist. Here she sings Lola, the flighty wife, with sensuous allure.
The fine and hard-working chorus flows like a real tide of people in and out of set pieces. The famous 'Easter Hymn' is sung movingly at a ceremonial procession in which crushed Santuzza alone sees a statue of the Madonna point woodenly and accusingly at her.
Under Covent Garden music director Sir Antonio Pappano, the temperature of the evening rose and rose, soloists in the orchestra personalising these lush scores. Who will bring such insight to the Italian repertoire when Pappano finally leaves the ROH for the London Symphony Orchestra in two years' time? London audiences have been treated to the best. Here's hoping the green white and red flag will fly as strongly from 2024.
Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci are sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances are on 8, 11, 14, 17 and 20 July. Click here for booking
|Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci, Royal Opera House review
|Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP
|Covent Garden (underground)
05 Jul 22 – 20 Jul 22, Six performances, running time 3hr 15min including one interval
|Click here for more information and booking