Royal Opera House 2021-22 Review: Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci

Damiano Michieletto’s Engrossing Staging Hits Vocal & Dramatic Top Notes

By Benjamin Poore
(Credit: Tristram Kenton/Royal Opera House)

Double-crossing, licentiousness, and the sad demise of a once popular showman: that was all going on down the road in Westminster while the Royal Opera House revived Damiano Michieletto’s double bill of “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” Sightings of former prime minister Theresa May and former Johnson ally Michael Gove – himself ignominiously sacked by Johson during the performance, reports later ran – were the perfect aperitif for an evening of bloody high drama. 

This revival has had its own fair share of changing places, though. Jonas Kaufmann was set to sing Turridu but withdrew, first partly and then wholly; Ermonela Jaho and Anita Rachvelishvili also fell by the wayside. Replacements came in the form of Roberto Alagna (“Pagliacci”) and (wife) Aleksandra Kurzak in both operas; SeokJong Baek, following a successful jump-in for “Samson” just a few weeks ago, took the role of Turiddu. 

A Fabulous Production

Michieletto’s contemporary production of this famous double bill places it amongst the rough rural poverty of Calabria, in ways that nods to the grime and grit of postwar Italian neorealist cinema. In “Cavalleria Rusticana” the action takes place inside and outside Mamma Lucia’s bakery – the complementary Eucharistic bread to the good wine that is toasted later in this Easter show. 

It is set on a turntable, taking us into the character’s private anguish and out into the hurlyburly of religious public spectacle and male boasting. (The baked goods that appear during the Easter celebrations – breads, pastries, colombina cakes – are a fabulous piece of naturalistic detailing, though they do leave one absolutely famished: eat before you come.) Alfio, here, is a petty criminal – perhaps a mafioso – who swaggers in with a polished motor and dishes out fur coats for the grateful crowd. Turiddu, in a black leather jacket that suggests James Dean, wanders listlessly, a drunk demobbed from the army and nihilistically courting trouble. 

The pageantry of the Easter Hymn is gloriously kitsch, with Michieletto’s preponderance for moments of dream-like magic coming to the fore, the statue of the Madonna coming to life and fixing Santuzza with an accusatory finger. A moment of deliriously high camp that nonetheless packs a theatrical wallop. Elena Zilio plays Mamma Lucia – in astounding voice for 81 years old – and anchors the first half, present through much of the action, and heart-wrenching at the climax. 

A further twist, though, comes in Michieletto knitting the worlds of the two operas together in a way that is thoroughly convincing. “Cav” acts as a prologue to “Pag”: the handsome baker Silvio, who has all kinds of absorbing business with proving dough and bakery ovens in “Cav”’s rather slow-moving start, meets Nedda as her and Beppe put up posters for the show during the famous Intermezzo. It is a beautifully directed sequence that grounds their relationship in a real tenderness that gives the second half much greater stakes. “Pag” also serves as a postlude, though: its intermezzo sees Santuzza seeking absolution from a priest, and then reconciling with Mamma Lucia. Sentimental? No doubt – but this is verismo, where emotions are slathered on like good olive on bread. 

“Pagliacci” plows a less naturalistic furrow than “Cav” – perhaps in keeping with the piece’s more elevated self-consciousness and knowing prologue, delivered by the malevolent Tonio. The players in the troupe are double cast so that as the play unfolds they appear both onstage and offstage, with Canio seemingly hallucinating the action of the play backstage, blurring real and imagined worlds, in a canny elaboration of the piece’s strangely probing questions about the nature of theatrical – indeed operatic – realism.

There are sharper, lighter touches too: the grandiose conducting of the village choirmaster is very funny, and a deliciously knowing wink and the kinds of histrionics these pieces allow conductors to get up to in the pit. The very final moments, as the play turns to bloodshed and the villagers flee in terror, is expertly choreographed (including the breathtaking detail of one audience member continuing to clap along before being dragged out). 

Regular Michieletto collaborator Alessandro Carletti lights the piece evocatively, opening the show with a dramatic chiaroscuro freeze-frame under a single street lamp, and bathing Paolo Fantin’s revolving set in an eerie green light as Canio struggles to tell the difference between stage action and reality in “Pagliacci.”

A Remarkable Cast 

Aleksandra Kurzak has her work cut out as both Santuzza and Nedda, but acquitted herself impressively. There was, perhaps, some loss of consistency in her otherwise gilded high notes in the second half, with a few winders and less varnished moments; she may have oversung in “Cav” to cut through Mascagni’s luxurious orchestration. In “Pagliacci” Nedda’s ‘Stridono lassù’ had plenty of glittering coloratura verve, in remarkable contrast to the dark-hued, even Wagnerian, Santuzza of the first part. There we heard a remarkable darkness and depth – almost mezzo-ish – quality to her sound, particularly in the “Voi lo sapete” sequence. 

SeokJong Baek brings the same intensity and clarity to Turridu that audiences here heard in his Samson – bright, lithe, ringing, and classically Italianate in style. Baek displayed a pinging vocal exuberance in the “libiamo” number. Meanwhile, the lightness of the voice has a touching fragility in his final scene with Mamma Lucia. Only one treacherous note nearly stymied him – his approach to the climactic top note in that same scene was less than sure-footed – but he held his nerve and, with remarkable professionalism, just about got away with it.

Roberto Alagna brings enormous charisma to the stage, and opened the second half with panache – despite the nastiness of the character, Alagna is impressive in his ability to wring a bit of sympathy from the audience for him. Vocally his instrument is as burnished as ever, excepting the very top notes, which wavered and strayed into shouting territory, but otherwise he displayed considerable vocal command. “Vesti la giubba” was delivered with darkness and fury, with judicious shading of vowels and precise use of cover to give us the requisite hit of self-loathing. The wilder, giddier sound of his descent into madness and rage in the play was thrilling and terrifying. 

Dimitri Platanias handled both Alfio and Tonio with rugged physicality of both movement and voice, though somewhat disappointing in the latter. His high notes rang with plenty of power and brilliance, but lower down was cloudy and unfocused, struggling to get the text across the luxurious orchestration. The “Pag” prologue managed to thrill, though. Elena Zilio has been with this production since it opened in 2016 and her mezzo still has remarkable clarity. 

Aigul Akhmetshina’s Lola – there are shades of Monica Bellucci in the design – spun a silken vocal web that showed off a sinuous legato, though still dripping with honey. (Her recent work in Kosky’s “Carmen” here shines through.) Mattia Olivieri has a handsome, youthful baritone that glowed in the most tender moments of his duet with Nedda in the second half – though his power to soar over the orchestra was no less impressive. 

The Royal Opera Chorus continued its fine form established in this year’s big-hitter pieces for choristers: “Lohengrin”, “Peter Grimes”, “Samson”, and indeed “Nabucco” way back in January. In the Easter hymn, each climax managed to top the last, and revival director Noa Nammat should get plenty of credit for vibrantly realized crowd scenes. 

This repertoire is the bread-and-butter of Antonio Pappano, in the pit that evening, and it is a testament to his love and understanding of this music that it is never phoned in. Under his direction, the orchestra was especially strong in “Pagliacci”, with Pappano’s ability to turn up the contrast on moments of textural and timbral interest especially pronounced: clusters of gem-like solo strings glint a little brighter, and double basses more sepulchrally, when he takes to the rostrum. The elaboration of orchestral detail in Leoncavallo’s score is so fastidious and vivid that it seems to point the way to Pappano’s beloved Respighi. An energetic and imaginative revival. 



ReviewsStage Reviews