Naxos has recently released the new production of Robert Carsen’s “I Pagliacci/Cavalleria Rusticana,” which opened the 2019/20 season at the Dutch National Opera. It is a new development, as historically it has been Opus Arte which release Amsterdam’s operatic DVDs. Opus Arte always included interesting footage from rehearsals and interviews with the cast and creative team in their DVDs. Naxos have, however, have confined their edition to the opera alone.
This production takes Carsen’s career-long leitmotif of “theatre within theatre” to the extreme. There are barely any sets, though elements of the theatre itself are evident; such as curtains, hundreds of small dressing room tables and mirrors which turn into boxes, hangers with costumes and chairs. What makes this production truly unique is the deep interaction with the audience: something which cannot be captured well by a camera, unfortunately. The production is so theatrical that it cannot simply be filmed: you have to be in the audience to see this production in its most complete form. Despite this, film director François Roussillon focuses on short close-ups, which work incredibly well and, with the realistic stage directing of the singers, you can follow the story perfectly and it is deeply emotional. The quality of image and sound are perfectly balanced and glorious, and orchestra, singers, and chorus are all at the correct level to be heard perfectly without hiding each other.
Carsen decided to invert the order that tradition has dictated and programmed “I Pagliacci” first.
The young soprano Aylin Pérez is ideal for the role of Nedda, as her voice has turned into something that is purely lyrical. She has a beautiful, velvet timbre that is completely even from the lowest to the highest register. Her singing is effortless and if there is an adjective that defines her performance it is freshness, both vocally and character-wise. Her aria “Qual fiamma avea nel guardo!” and her duet with Silvio is executed with delicacy, hope and love, using mezza-voce and pianissimi to color her phrases. She executes two clean trills on her aria and the several B flats of the duet sound easy and free. Pérez has control in her middle and lower register as well, which keeps the same even timbre and same level of projection. This makes her accomplish her duet with Tonio with dramatism, despair, and strength. She portrays a determined and strong woman who fights for her dreams, defends violently against Tonio’s rapacious impulses, and tries to save her life in the final scene.
Roman Burdenko, was the only member of the cast who sang in both operas. Burdenko playing Tonio in “I Pagliacci” posed a metallic, dark voice, which enables him to fulfill all the dramatism of the role, as well as the lyrism of the prologue of the evening. This is quite a demanding piece for a baritone to launch into straight away at the beginning of the performance. Burdenko navigates easily through the long, fluid lines and seems very natural during the parlato moments, establishing a real connection with the audience. The baritone is fluid in the high register, delivering, as imposed by tradition, the A flat and G natural of the prologue. The famous prologue aside, the role of Tonio is short and he only sings in ensemble moments and the tessitura is quite central. The real challenge is in the characterization, and on this account, Burdenko is believable and intense.
Jovanovich has a voice that is difficult to classify. It does not seem a dramatic tenor voice to me, because he lacks a deep dark timbre. He has the tessitura for the role, including the optional B natural in “a venti tre ore.” But his voice is not even, his central register sounds lyrical, and while his diction is immaculate, from the passagio upwards the voice has a white quality, guttural sound, and the diction is blurred. He is in trouble with his famous aria “Vesti la Giubba,” where he breathes constantly, breaking the legato and his A naturals sound forced and strained. Though you can hear vocal fatigue and he is slightly hoarse in the higher register, he is very menacing and violent in his last scene. Despite his uneven timbre his acting is excellent. His portrayal of the jealous, abusive and desperate Canio is convincing and strong.
The baritone Mattia Olivieri took on the role of Nedda’s lover Silvio, a short role that has essentially a single love duet and a few lines. His lyrical voice is perfect for the infatuated young lover. Olivieri sings effortless legato lines in an uncomfortable high tessitura around F and G. His defined muscular torso―as he sings shirtless during the sexual moments of his duet with Nedda―and his ardent sweet acting, make his performance realistic and natural.
Anita Rachvelishvili shines and overshadows the rest of the cast in Mascagni’s work as Santuzza. Even if we are confined only to the perspective of the camera, her hypnotic, strong stage presence and deep, realistic performance makes her the star of the show. Her voice is dark, deep, and voluminous. She may sound like a contralto in the middle-low register, but her high notes are secure, bright, and expansive. She knows her instrument very well and restrains the sound to sing legato lines, like in the church scene, proving her security in alt with a tremendous B natural at the end. She also gives all the strength of her voice in the dramatic moments during “Voi lo sapete o mamma” and the subsequent duet with Turiddu. She grows in intensity, from the hurt, abandoned woman to the final jealous, dramatic confrontation with Turiddu, completing a perfect dramatic arc. It must be taken into consideration that Santuzza’s role was written for a dramatic soprano, therefore the tessitura can sound quite arduous and high for a dramatic mezzo like Rachvelishvili, but this does not seem to be a problem for the mezzo. She sings effortlessly and fluidly through a role written mostly above the staff. Her final high C sounds bright, easy, and expansive.
Brian Jagde sang the role of the unfaithful Turiddu. He began his training as a baritone, giving his middle and low register a secure presence. His timbre is dark, penetrating, and has the qualities of a dramatic tenor, making him ideal for the confrontation duet with Santuzza, but giving him trouble on the wine aria, which demands a light, agile sound. This seems to be a problem for the heavy voice of the tenor, who struggles with Lorenzo Viotti’s lively tempo as is demanded by the piece. Yet he has no problem with the climactic high notes like the B natural at the end of the wine song or the B flat of “mamma, qual vino” of his ending aria, even though the attack is not clean and he uses a rough glottal stop. His Italian diction is not precise, and you could easily notice that he is a native English speaker in his “R” and “T” consonants.
Roman Burdenko sings the cheated husband Alfio, a short role with a comfortable central tessitura and an F sharp as the highest note. He complies perfectly with the dramatism of the part, and above all, he manages to keep the voice fresh until the end of the night despite having sung the two baritone roles of both operas.
Elena Zilio and Rihab Chaieb portray Mamma Lucia and Lola respectively. Their singing parts are really small, but they have determining importance in the development of the drama. They contribute with their strong, realistic acting, making their scenes with Santuzza or Turiddu all the stronger.
Lorenzo Viotti conducts the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra with lively, fast tempi. This is in contrast with the expansive long melodies of the “Cavalleria Rusticana” intermezzo. He manages to maintain a strong level of tension during the dramatic moments. The orchestra and chorus are perfectly synchronized, which presents a challenge for the director in “I Pagliacci,” as the chorus is mostly behind him all the time.
As I always say, I am very cautious about commenting on the volume and projection of the voices, as well as the sound of the orchestra and chorus, in recordings, because the sound is manufactured and mixed digitally. Therefore, when the engineers do a good job—as is the case here—you have a perfect balance of all the instruments of the orchestra, the voices of the choir, and the soloist singers. Some people are against filming and recording performances, as they consider these to be fake. For me, it is a way to preserve opera performances with the best possible quality. It cannot be compared to live theatre, of course, but it is just another equally viable option.