In the beginning of the 20th-century there was a snootiness about verismo opera. All of its propagators – Puccini, Giordano, Mascagni, among others – were accused of simplifying opera by eliminating many of its challenges. Those long showy lines of coloratura were long gone. In place of it, the singers began interspersing notes and passages with great long sighs or yells – and those ubiquitous raised hands and eyebrows. And while performance styles have undulated in the last one-hundred years, frequent attendance at the opera anywhere over the world ensures clown gestures will be spotted.
Damiano Michieletto’s joint production of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” perhaps desires to be daring – but falls short of it. His “Cavalleria” takes place in a decade difficult to designate; on one hand, the Sicilian villagers wear clothes that could range from the forties to the nineties – a mix of polka dot cotton dresses, black lace cocktail gowns, and yellow t-shirts veiled with denim jackets. On the other, a satellite TV dish is installed at the bakery where the characters work. In the 19th-century libretto, of course, there’s no bakery, and tenor Turiddu has just returned from military service when the story begins to unravel.
Faults in the setting don’t lie in its near-contemporary backdrop. Both “Cavalleria” and “Pagliacci” are operas with timeless, traditional plots that don’t rely on a particular historical event to drive their stories forward. The irritating facets of this take are found in how the plot points are conveyed to a more modern era. Throughout Easter festivities, the chorus of small children wear white angel capes, plastic wings on their backs and tinsel tiaras on their heads. They look like poorly costumed characters in a nativity play.
Evidently, through these means – as well as the tacky, unclean, mostly empty space in which the leading characters work in a bakery – Michieletto can successfully depict to us the working-class, peasant-like tastes of these uneducated residents. And yet his means to showcase their unerring country bumpkin nature is bereft of fluency. In any decade set in a Sicilian village – why would the children wear tinsel at Easter? Would a colossal white statue of the Virgin Mary really be paraded on a grassy, flower-laden platform through the streets?
No doubt there would be many icons everywhere and locally renowned traditions taking place. But here the Virgin Mary’s statue is a symbol of religious folk’s hypocrisy. Played by an actor, she comes to life all of a sudden, pointing a literal finger at Santuzza who’s been excommunicated from the Church for having a pre-marital affair with young Turiddu. It’s no surprise that “Cavalleria Rusticana” can invite interpretations that involve indictments of the Church or its God-fearing congregation. Whether or not one thinks the concept suits the opera isn’t even the main point here: its depiction is a tacky one. If a Virgin Mary icon came to life in some Hollywood movie just to point a finger at a “sinful” girl, the scene would probably provoke countless rolled eyes and mockery. And here it does the same.
In the midst of this, some singers go out of their way to be both seen and heard. The principal aggressor of this war against the stage’s background antics is Bryan Hymel, taking over for the indisposed Fabio Sartori as Turiddu. From the outset, his high notes are pushed so loudly that the vast majority come out as strained. Even simple phrases such as “Mamma cercavo” – “I was looking for mother” – are yielded with a huge declamatory stance and quivery as a result. In the lead-up to the climactic duet between him and his ex-lover, he outshouts Elīna Garanča as Santuzza with the phrase “Schiavo non solo (“I am not guilty”),” holding the line for so long that it blocks her answer and denies Garanča’s voice a chance to reach the audience – although her instrument is huge all by itself. Both off-key and cracked notes later ensue.
In terms of pure technique, Garanča has the most to mold and play with. Her voice is a colossal mezzo-soprano as comfortable in high notes as the bitter darker register. However, playing this desperate girl who has been wantonly seduced and then abandoned, her pleas and cries for help sure have a lot of might. It is excessive power that Garanča lends even the most innocuous phrases. Begging her ex-lover’s mother Lucia to tell her Turiddu’s whereabouts “per pietà” – for pity’s sake, her voice sounds dictatorially commanding in an instance where she must defer not only to her elder but her former lover’s mother who is brave enough to talk to this girl ostracised from their community. No vulnerability is exposed. As she tells Lucia of her love towards her son, she throws a chair. It may be the director’s choice – but likewise, during her performance of the Easter Hymn, the sacred text is bolted out like bullets. It’s a real shame because her voice is technically near-perfect: a paragon of beauty by itself. It isn’t Santuzza. At least not yet.
Mark S. Doss uses his smaller role of Alfio to load the opera with an underbelly of portentous bass notes; fully exploiting his limited stage time to signal the imminent doom. Perhaps it’s Lola at the hands of relative newcomer Martina Belli who best fuses characteristic vocality with a stable technique. The sleekness of her mezzo timbre serves her well as she defuses notes in slow and languishing diminuendi; making it quite clear to listeners just how Turiddu would prefer her brazen Carmen-like seductress over nubile and naïve Santuzza.
Like his “Cavalleria”, Michieletto’s directorial take on “Pagliacci” also becomes the victim of many a cliché. We witness two characters from “Cavalleria” – a weeping Santuzza and Mamma Lucia – converse on the stage during the opera’s interlude. The play within a play takes place in a community center that houses a school gymnasium complete with climbing frames. Again it seems to be a cheap and not very ambitious method of displaying simple Sicilians in their tight-knit society. For the first half of the play within the opera, real characters remain backstage in Nedda’s dressing room while mimes convey the actions to the onstage audience: we’re thus exposed to a split screen dividing them. Eventually, the performers take their assigned places and play Pagliaccio, Columbina, Taddeo and Arlecchino respectively in what is clearly an attempt to show the “All the World’s a Stage” concept. There is no doubt “Pagliacci” is about that. But a school gym and mimes on the stage are not the most exploratory, detail-laden means through which to showcase it.
Simon Keenlyside’s Tonio makes everybody else look small. Every note of his is an arc in itself; opening, rising to a crescendo in self-realization, fading with sadness and completing a musical crest. Well-tempered usage of vibrato gives his baritone the premonition on which the entire opera should depend: an eerie sentiment of unavoidable catastrophe. The contemplativeness which this lends to the “Prologo” makes it much more than a fable’s adage.
Bold and yet loud singing continues to be heard from Bryan Hymel in the role of Canio; here most of his phrases are characterized as oratorical statements that belong in a court. Carmen Giannattasio’s Nedda frames her personage with much more nuance – albeit of a slightly unexpected kind. Nedda in this instance isn’t much of a daydreamer as she reminisces of the ditty that her mother used to sing her, “Stridono lassù;” her voice is a thick, dark, determined soprano hellbent on decreeing portents. Most successful are the gradual diminuendi with which she lets certain lines linger. Overall despite having a powerful technique and motley instrument, her vocal interpretation of Nedda strays a little too far into “villainess” territory to emblematize this enamored, troubled young woman.
Daniel Oren’s handling of the orchestra is this performance’s sole attribute that backs away from the verismo clichés. Rather than overstating the full force of tragedy, it veers into the Classical; exuding “Cavalleria’s” overture with tempered delicacy as though it might be a Mozart sonata. In certain instances, the sections fall a little bit apart and the ensemble is tugged out of shape – where the brass stretch for longer in one instance, the strings stop playing prematurely in another. Oftentimes, the sections appear fractionally out of sync – like two young children running down a narrow staircase in which both of them can’t fit. On the other hand, the strings can be a little too brisk and a little jovial; during “Cavalleria’s” intermezzo they bounce lightly and exude the aura of a fruity wine.
So, for the most part, this production of the double bill that strives perhaps to appear radical in fact harks back to old, rusty techniques. With many singers regressing to that undying style of overly theatrical, exaggerated gestures, and hurled fortissimo notes – together with a condemnatory Madonna come to life – both operas devolve into classic verismo schtick. Even in 2017, it’s not that surprising.