Royal Opera House 2023-24 Review: ‘Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci’

By Mike Hardy
(Photo: Marc Brenner)

They go together like cookies and milk…like bacon and eggs…like Adam and Eve!

Nooooooo! Not “Cav” and “Pag,” as the fans insist on calling the operas, but Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak!

The golden couple, currently on at the Royal Opera House in “Cavalleria Rusticana,” consolidated their positions as world class artists here with spellbinding performances from start to finish.

That’s not to say that the veritable, verismo duo of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” aren’t still the perfect blend that they have always been ever since conjoining at the Met in 1893. In fact, Damiano Michieletto’s production, now in its third revival directed here by Noa Naamat, makes the entwining ever more tangible, almost becoming a viable whole. Not only do Nedda and Silvio, the architects of the tragedy in “Pagliacci” get to ignite their passions in “Cavalleria Rusticana,” but one of the chief architects of the Cavalleria tragedy, Santuzza, gets to appear in one of the most poignant and emotional scenes of the whole evening in “Pagliacci,” where she reconciles with Mamma Lucia, the grief-stricken mother of her dead beau, Turiddu.

These operas were written over two years apart, but served to pioneer the verismo or realist movement in Italian opera, often depicting the struggles and drama of common people. And in these offerings, drama is in abundance.

Brillian ‘Cavalleria’

In “Cavalleria,” Santuzza loves Turiddu, who loves Lola, who doesn’t, (seemingly), love her husband Alfio, who definitely doesn’t love Lola once Santuzza informs him of his wife’s infidelity and who exacts revenge on Turridu by shooting him.

In the case of Pagliacci, Canio, Tonio and Silvio ALL love Nedda, who only loves Silvio even though she’s married to the obsessively jealous Canio, whilst having to perpetually fight off the lecherous Tonio, the latter informing Canio of his wife’s indulgences with Silvio resulting in Canio murdering both Silvio and Nedda.

There’s clearly something in the water in this small, Sicilian village where love really DOES hurt, and where “crimes of passion” are, seemingly, an endemic. Paolo Fantin’s revolving set depicts well, this frugal, if not impoverished Italian backdrop, set somewhere in the mid to third quarter 20th century. Dating it with any precision is difficult. The costume and austere ambiance suggest early post war but Alfio’s car appears to be way more contemporary.

The curtain rises to reveal Turridu’s prone corpse whilst the entire cast are gathered, watching; frozen as if waxworks, before coming to life and carrying off the unfortunate in a raised, supine position with arms outstretched. This powerful opening sets the scene for the whole opera which perpetually simmers with brooding intensity.

This is a huge paradox because Mascagni created, by far, the most superior music; a beautiful, evocative score, resplendent with quintessential, lilting Italianate melodies.

The role of the spurned lover, Santuzza, is played here by Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak. In her LAST appearance in this role at the Roya Opera House in 2022, she also ended up singing the role of Nedda in “Pagliacci.” On this occasion, she reserved all of her majesty for the one role; and on this appearance, it’s hard to imagine it being bettered. Her voice, movements and countenance positively oozed the angst, rage, and heartbreak of the spurned mistress. She has made an amazing transition from coloratura to dramatic soprano, displaying a complete palette of wonderful colors in all registers. Her passionate entreaties to her lover, Turridu, in their duet “Ah! Lo vedi, che hati tu detto?” were genuinely heart rending and as already indicated, her brief moment in the second opera, “Pagliacci,” where she remains silent, desperately reaching out to the mother of her lost love, Turridu, to be united in their grief, was the most emotive act of the entire evening.

One doesn’t know whether the fact that Alagna and Kurzak are married in real life adds to their chemistry here, but there is unequivocal dynamism of the highest order which just reinforces the authenticity of their on-stage relationship.

I had read, recently from other reviews, that Alagna’s instrument was on the wane and showing signs of its age, but that suggestion was absolutely refuted here. From the opening “O Lola ch’ai di latti la cammisa,” ode to his true love Lola, where he sings with wonderful legato, flourishes and trills, to his combative duets with Santuzza, “Tu qui, Santuzza?” he displays a tenor of steely power and resonance. His trademark colors and phrasing are in abundance. His “Mamma, quel vino è generoso” to his mother was superb. Moreover, he is a hugely underestimated actor. His challenging scorn and impulsiveness when his rival and nemesis Alfio refuses his invitation to drink with him, and he aggressively empties his glass at Alfio’s feet, is a genuine flinch moment. Alagna has a true gift of fully immersing and embodying the characteristics of his role. In a recent interview with OperaWire, he said: “I still feel the same thrill for singing like at the beginning. I have an unaltered desire to always try to do better and better; To study; To try to reach out and find other possibilities. I am like this. I am an eternal student.”
It is clear, on this showing, that his philosophy has held him in good stead.

The role of Lola was sung by American soprano Rachael Wilson, making her Royal Opera House debut. Suitably sultry and coquettish, she sings with a splendid, polished mezzo of variegated colors, particularly a pleasing, dark timbre in the lower register, and one may have left wanting to hear more of this voice.

Mamma Lucia is performed by Elena Zilio who sings with a remarkable clarity and beauty that utterly belies her 82 years; a true phenomenon who enhances every scene with her magical acting presence, and who deserved every plaudit she received at the curtain call. She possesses unique gifts by way of painting wonderful scenes and emotions with mere gestures and facial expressions.

Greek Baritone Dimitri Platanias performs in BOTH operas here, firstly as the cuckold Alfio, where he gets to display much menace. His horror on discovering his wife’s infidelity was almost palpable. His presence and intonations in “A voi tutti, salute,” where he rejects Turridu’s offer of a drink and elects to duel, were utterly convincing and chilling. Although unseen, he gets to conclude this opera by shooting his rival, the loud shot preceding a villager’s scream, before Turridu staggers and falls on the spot where we first discovered him at curtain rise.

A “Cavalleria” of this quality is a hard act to follow but be followed it must. And the performers were up for the challenge.

A Hard Act to Follow

Platanias, after a quick costume change, now gets the privilege, (after having brought the curtain down on one performance), of getting to raise the curtain in “Pagliacci,” in the guise of Tonio, a member of a traveling troupe, or commedia dell’arte. In the famous prologue, “Si puo signore signori!,” he gets to explain that actors have real feelings too, and that the show we’re about to witness is about real people. This amiable and endearing trait is at great odds, however, to Tonio’s real persona when it quickly transpires that he is a licentious abuser, hell-bent on molesting the object of his desires, Nedda, the wife of the troupe owner, Canio. When he is humiliatingly rejected, he is gifted the opportunity for revenge when he discovers that Nedda has actually promised to elope with Silvio. In a complete reversal of his role in “Cavalleria,” Platanias now becomes the harbinger, rather than the recipient of bad news. This necessitates him bringing Canio to witness his wife’s indiscretions, where she is discovered in the arms of her lover, who flees before being identified. When Nedda refuses to name her paramour, Canio’s incandescent rage is interrupted by the announcement that the “show” is about to start.

Whereas in “Cav,” he was simply menacing and broody, Platanias’s character here drips malevolence and insalubrity. Notwithstanding, he was vocally secure in both operas, notably more so in “Pagliacci,” where he employed his opulent baritone to great effect, performing an accomplished and commanding prologue, a tad quiet in the middle but stentorian in the upper register, and resorting to a pleasing sotto voce that served to highlight his wickedness in his scenes with Nedda. It always amazed me that Tonio, such a lecherous, lascivious lout, should be given such self-deprecating, soulful lines to sing, as evidenced by his entreaty for Nedda’s affections in his recitative, “So ben che difforme,” that almost make one sympathize with him.

Nedda is played here by Russian soprano Anna Princeva who sings with inarguable beauty. She has a wonderful, dark hue to her lower register, rising to a shining, ardent top, displaying some beautiful sottos, particularly in her trysts with Silvio, where her romantic duet, is sublime. Her Columbina in the “play” is a spellbinding combination of comedy and genuine suspense.

Her beau, Silvio, played by Polish baritone Andrzej Filończyk cuts a very charismatic line, a confident, sonorous baritone which really comes to life when pleading with Nedda; “Decidi il mio destin.” Alas, it is CANIO who gets to decide his destiny, along with that of his paramour, when in the final act, the troupe’s play intertwines with “reality” where Canio murders not only his wife, but also her lover, Silvio, when he jumps on to the stage to cradle his dying lover.

Turning to the horrified crowd, Tonio announces that the comedy is over.

Superfluous to requirements, given that Leoncavallo gives us very little to laugh at here.

Canary Islands tenor Jorge de León gets to lose grips with reality as the hapless Canio, playing a convincing madman driven crazy by jealousy. His dispatching of his adulterous wife and her lover was quite dramatic, if not slightly perturbing in its realism. Vocally, he has a wonderfully bright tenor, starting a tad cautiously, one might have felt. His line “Ma poi ricordatevi A ventitré ore” seemed a tad thin on the last high note. However, if he was reserving his upper register for one of the most popular tenor arias in opera, “Vesti La Giubba,” then it was worth the wait. Full bodied, bold, orotund, and with a wonderful, pathos-filled “sul tuo amore infranto!”; his anguish was tangible.

Special mention must also go to Spanish tenor Mikeldi Atxalandabaso in the role of Beppe, for a quite elegant and superlative “O Colombina” aria, amongst the finest examples one might have heard; another voice deserving of greater stage time.

The Royal Opera House Chorus were exceptional here, exquisitely harmonious and angelic in “Cavalleria,” particularly during the Easter Hymn, and wonderfully sonorous and comically boisterous throughout “Pagliacci.” Their efforts here cannot be underestimated regarding their massive contribution to the musicality of the occasion.

Again, I see previous reviews lambasting conductor Daniel Oren, some suggesting that his conducting was plodding and lethargic. It is true that, certainly in “Cavalleria,” the tempo at the beginning was slower than is normal, but I felt this immensely enhanced Mascagni’s beautiful score, giving it greater emotional emphasis. This was particularly relevant in the opening scenes where the characters, plot and environment are being introduced. I especially loved the famous “Intermezzo,” where Oren introduced greater sustain on key passages. Certainly, the orchestra produced a most pleasing and melodious cornucopia of beautiful sounds throughout both performances.

“Cav” and “Pag” are universally acknowledged as the ideal beginner operas, a perfect introduction to this wondrous art form. When the performance is as superior as this, I believe it demands attention from opera goers of all persuasions.


ReviewsStage Reviews