“Pagliacci” and “Cavalleria Rusticana” is one of the signature double bills in opera that show offs the many qualities of a leading tenor. Both parts are known for their demanding vocal challenges and in many cases are sung by two different tenors.
However, in the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival of David McVicar’s production, Roberto Alagna triumphed in two of his best performances in recent Met history alongside two incredible divas.
But before I praise the vocal artistry on this night, I want to start with David McVicar’s 2015 production. The production, which sets both stories in the same plaza in different time periods has numerous issues, starting with its turntable. McVicar has used this tool many times to move the story forward such as in his incredible “Il Trovatore” interpretation.
In “Cavalleria Rusticana” the turntable is a dizzying and headache inducing, creating visual noise on the stage. Not content with spinning the turntable for the opening of the opera, McVicar has the choristers moving about as it spins. The choristers sit down and stand up without discernible purpose, move about the stage setting up tables, moving chairs and when it all ends, it all feels as if the director is trying to hard to keep the set busy and more “theatrical.” But when it all ends, one is left with more confusion and with side effects that should not be part of an opera experience. Ultimately all of this movement also creates confusion as to where to look, no doubt adding to the discomforting experience.
And it doesn’t get any better as dancers enter the stage when Alfio sings his aria “Il Cavallo Scalpita.” Rather putting your attention on Alfio’s imposing presence as outlined in the music, McVicar gives audiences a messy choreography that doesn’t fit the rhythm of Mascagni’s music nor does it fit the tone of the work. Matters are not improved by the fact that the chorus during the “Regina Coeli” walks on stage as the turntable spins. The visual noise distracts from the music and one is forced to look away from the stage.
And when all the ruckus has finished and McVicar has no more pomp and circumstance to distract with, he empties the stage and leaves audiences in black sets that look more like a concert setting.
And while “Pagliacci” is an improvement over “Cavalleria,” it is far from perfect. For one, Pagliacci is a violent opera that ends in one of the most devastating final scenes. Yet McVicar’s staging lacks any violence or danger. Like his “Tosca,” where the diva has time to walk around tables and murder Scarpia, Nedda, finding herself in mortal danger doesn’t run off stage and try to escape Canio’s knife. Instead, she runs around the table straight into the knife. Wasn’t she trying to run away? Why not simply walk off the stage as many of the other supers try to persuade during the play? How does this action make the scene violent? It simply looks overtly planned and as if the actors are going through the motions. But even more questionable is why Silvio walks so uncaring towards the dead corpse of Nedda and allows Canio to stab him? It hinders a truly powerful moment leaving the viewer feeling that McVicar staged the scene out of necessity rather than true immersion.
A Lackluster Conductor
And if the production lacked any insight into these two works Nicola Luisotti certainly didn’t make things better. Like his outing in the Richard Tucker gala, Luisotti seemed to have a hard time following his singers. In the “Voi lo sapete o mama,” Ekaterina Semenchuck was attempting to move the tempo forward, but Luisotti kept the tempo back, creating a push-pull effect. The two remained unsynchronized many times during the aria and it never really gained cohesion. Then in the duet with Alfio, Luisotti had a hard time keeping up with the two singers. During the intermezzo, he filled the score with far too much rubato and space, stunting the music’s abiltiy to grow and build in any climactic manner. In the final scene, Luisotti was restrained, taking away from the powerful score.
In “Pagliacci,” he kept many of the same tendencies. In Nedda’s aria, rather than move with Aleksandra Kurzak’s incisive energy, he attempted to hold the tempo back and in the “Vesti la guibba” he stretched out lines which Alagna was clearly trying to move forward.
But there were some really great moments, especially the dramatic pauses that Luisotti and Kurzak worked out in the final scene. They made for moments of tension and unpredictability. One wondered what would happen next.
A Virtuoso Tenor
Despite all my gripes about the staging and conducting, there was something to cheer on. Roberto Alagna was in stellar form and while his opening phrases in “Cavalleria Rusticana” were filled with hesitance, the tenor came on stage with his usual elegance and grace giving Turiddu somewhat of a sympathetic air.
While Alagna’s voice lacks the color and refinement one would expect of a verismo tenor, he is an artist that pours every emotion into his work. In his duet with Santuzza he sang with an ardent tone and powerful high notes. And while he began the duet with a very cool presence, as Santuzza continued her incessant pleas, Alagna’s Turiddu began moving about almost as if trying to ignoring her. And then in his exchanges with Lola, the tone gained a softer feel and a flirtatious nature. In his drinking song, Alagna moved about with swagger singing each line with delight. Then in his confrontation with Alfio, Alagna returned to that cocky air that seemed in control. It was only after that Alagna’s hotheaded Turddiu realizes his mistake.
And it was his “Mamma, quel vino e generoso” that stopped the show. Alagna sang with desperation each time embracing his Mamma Lucia, Jane Bunnell, trying not to let go. His timbre gained weight as the aria also gained momentum and one felt Turiddu’s torment with his final “Addio.”
If his Turiddu was hot-headed, Alagna’s Canio was a jealous drunk from the onset. From the moment he walked on stage, Alagna’s Canio was charismatic but also dangerous. At one moment a chorister looked at his Nedda and this Canio jumped off the car going after him. Then in his first moment with his wife, Alagna went after a bottle starting to drink from it until Nedda took it away.
His aggressive character seemed to come from his alcoholic and jealous tendencies. After Silvio and Nedda’s duet, Alagna ran after Silvio and later attempted to hit Nedda. In the final scene during the play, Alagna once again walked on stage with a bottle showcasing Canio’s drunk nature. And rather than being an uncontrollable clown, Alagna seemed to internalize his desperation. With the simple act of grabbing her by the neck during his “Si Pagliaccio non so,” this Canio showed the violence he could do against Nedda without overdoing the physicality. But unfortunately, the payoff was cut short by the aforementioned staging, but thankfully Alagna sang with a full voice that expressed every emotion of despair and jealousy the character needs to make the scene visceral and emotional.
“Vesti la Giubba” was a masterclass in how to sing verismo. Alagna never over emoted any line or tried to overemphasize or stretch any musical phrase. The exaggeration accentuations we often hear in this style were virtually absent, Alagna opted for more of a bel canto approach. It was his vocal phrasing from his pianissmi to his fortes that made the aria work. Additionally, his approach to the text allowed audiences to understand what this character was going through in this moment. Alagna, an incredible actor, took the curtain and wiped the character’s tears with it.
Overall this was a triumph for Alagna who seems to be having a renaissance as of late.
But as much as Alagna’s work was marvelous, his two leading ladies demonstrated why they need to be at the Metropolitan Opera much more than they have been.
Ekaterina Semenchuck is one of the few dramatic mezzos today that can perform this role to such perfection. Her technique is unmatched and her timbre has the weight to carry across the orchestra. And as Santuzza, Semenchuck showcased a woman filled with remorse, desperation, and jealousy. And in this production, she was also an outsider who always sat outside the circle of choristers.
In “Voi che sapete o mamma” Semenchuck brought out numerous colors crescendoing the line as the music demanded. The text came across clearly allowing audiences to understand Santuzza’s suffering. And in the duet with Turiddu, Semenchuck sang with an emotional pull. As she kneeled, begging her Turiddu not to leave her, her voice continued to grow in volume. The duet with Alfio saw her color change once again, holding back and giving it an eeire piano. Only when Alfio seeks out vengeance, did Semenchuck once again let out her full voice. The change of vocal display showcased the change in Santuzza and the mistake she had made.
As Nedda Aleksandra Kurzak was coquettish, youthful, sensual, and commanding. But this was also a Nedda seeking freedom. From the beginning, Kurzak dominated the stage dancing and flirting with choristers and it was evident that she relished each moment.
Then in her showstopping “Qual fiamma avea nel guardo” Kurzak allowed audiences to see the different facets of Nedda. Her opening lines were sung with a nostalgic feel extending the lines but soon after one saw the sensual side with “Io son piena di vita” as she lay on the ground singing, emphasizing the text and lifting her skirt. And then she showed off Nedda’s youthfulness with clean trills and coloratura. In “Stridono lassu” she moved about the stage almost as if she was telling a story to the audience. The vocal line obtained a light texture that would differ from the end of the work. By the end of the aria, Kurzak twirled around the stage holding her high B Flat making for an incredible virtuoso moment.
During her subsequent encounter with Tonio, Kurzak maintained that coquettish persona but it was only after Tonio attempts to rape her that Kurzak’s Nedda obtained a tragic character. As Kurzak crawled on stage trying to defend herself from George Gagnidze’s Tonio, her Silvio Alessio Arduini walked in. Kurzak’s Nedda didn’t immediately receive him with tenderness or love. This was now a fearful woman. As she sang the line “Non Abusar di me,” Kurzak sang with intensity and to the extremes of her voice. It was not until the final parts of the duet that Kurzak let her guard down, giving the final lines a rich and seductive pianissimo sound.
During the second scene, Kurzak relished in the comedy dancing to the production’s choreography and giving her Colombina a girlish tone. She joked with the play’s supers and showed an air of confidence. Even when Alagna’s Canio grabbed by the neck, Kurzak was defiant. In her lines “No, per mia Madre,” Kurzak sang with her full voice, emoting on some of her lines and equaling Alagna’s violent outcries.
In the roles of Alfio and Tonio, George Gagnidze showed a potent baritone, singing with strength. Gagnidze’s grainy timbre works well with these two characters as they both show their ugly nature. It also helped that Gagnidze showed two different sides to each character. If his Alfio was imposing and confident, his Tonio seemed deformed in the way he moved about.
Alessio Arduini sang Silvio with a bit of a tame character but showed some beautiful vocal character. Rihab Chaieb was successful as Lola, bringing rich colors to Lola’s song.
Jane Bunnell sang Mamma Lucia while Andrew Bidlack brought a promising tenor to the role of Peppe, singing with tenderness.
The Metropolitan Opera is currently showing two verismo operas with productions by David McVicar. If you have to choose one, this double bill showcases the thrill, intensity, and suspense that verismo opera needs. Thanks to its incomparable cast, this is one of the best “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” the Met has assembled in recent years.