06 Apr 2008
San Diego Opera: Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci
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Opera companies often tout new productions as a major attraction of their seasons.
Somehow it had eluded your reviewer that the third program of San Diego Opera's 2008 season, the classic pairing of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, would feature a new staging from director Lotfi Mansouri and designer John Coyne. In fact, only on checking the program at intermission, after the (pardon the abbreviation) Cav, did I notice the words "a new production" tucked away as the fifth bullet point of 8 under the act and intermission breakdown.
Instead, San Diego Opera had trumpeted the show as a mini-tenor festival, with the return of San Diego favorite Richard Leech in his role debut as Turiddu and the house debut of José Cura as Canio. And the company was wise to do so. Both tenors put on very good performances, though far from perfect. And the new production? Sadly, it would hardly have appeared "new" 20 years ago. At least the Cav boasted a passably attractive traditional set, although on the cramped Civic Center stage the tables of Mamma Lucia's tavern are only a couple yards from the steps to the church. The one creative touch here came after the prelude, played before a scrim of passing clouds against a blue sky. For Turiddu's sereande to Lola, a small, elevated room to the rear of the stage became illuminated, and we saw the lover leaving his married partner's bedroom. Since Cav takes its time getting started, this bit of staging actually works well to establish the drama early on. After that, every move and gesture played out pretty much as one would expect. Mansouri's predilection for the obvious revealed itself at Santuzza's entrance. Although she steps around the church and Mamma Lucia is almost immediately in front of her, Mansouri had Carter Scott look left and right, as if confused about her location.
But the direction truly went for the risible in a sort of festival procession for the Easter mass. After the passage of townfolk and some penitents (looking alarmingly like Klansmen in their white robes with red sashes), a couple of Roman centurions wheeled on a platform bearing Jesus on the cross, portrayed by a living man. We know he's living because the "Jesus" comes down off the cross, raises his arms in triumph, and enters the church, escorted by the Roman soldiers. Now research may well have established this as typical of an Italian village of the time of the opera's setting, but putting it on stage is a very different thing. The audience did a commendable job of stifling giggles.
Cav has lasted because it is nearly indestructible, and so it proved at this matinee. In his serenade Leech gave a distressing reading, unsteady and brassy. By the time he reappeared, he seemed to have settled. His big voice filled the hall, and he at least sketched in a credible portrait of a strutting small town cad who finds, as he faces his death, some compassion for the woman who has given herself to him. Turiddu is a role where the absence of a subtlety won't cripple a performance. Carter Scott's Santuzza played up the pathetic side of the character a bit too much. She came off best at the top of her range; the middle voice needs more color. Judith Christin's Mamma Lucia sounded suitably aged, and she managed to made moving the stock staging of falling on top of her son's corpse. Bruno Caproni blustered away as Alfio, a role which doesn't ask for much more. Perhaps the best singing overall came from Sarah Castle's Lola; she possess not only a very attractive voice but the acting skills to make Lola a credible character in her brief confrontation with Santuzza and Turiddu.
The always reliable conductor Edorado Müller reinforced his reputation as such. San Diego Opera boasts a fine chorus, led by Timothy Todd Simmons. Some of the wackier supertitles of a stilted translation went to the ladies of the chorus. "Cease these rural labors," they urged their male counterparts. Yea, and forthwith!
If the drably colored set for Cav hardly appeared new, it still must have taken most of the budget. The spartan Pagliacci set offered a laughably crude painted backdrop, a tree to the left, and a bare platform before a fragment of ancient wall. At least in the second half the platform was dressed up a bit and the "stage" for the comedia had some color. Fortunately the singers didn't lack for inspiration, and Mansouri's work moved to a higher level than that seen in the Cav. Elizabth Futral contrived to make Nedda entirely sympathetic, although Canio may not be all that wrong at the end when he charges her with ingratitude and a well-developed taste for "sensuality." Bruno Caproni, the Tonio, got to show more colors to his voice than he had as Alfio. His evil laugh of triumph when he leads Canio to the discovery of Nedda with her lover Silvio, however, came right out of Snidely Whiplash. Scott Hendricks cut a handsome figure as Silvio, although not much erotic charge developed between him and Futral, who sang attractively throughout. Mansouri did not give Beppe, sung by Simeon Esper, much to do other than pop out for his serenade, which went pleasantly enough.
Cura dominated the performance, with a well-defined portrayal of a still handsome man frustrated into rage by the weakening grasp he has on his wife. In the first half, all the way through "Vesti al giubba," Cura sounded in good voice, with strong projection and a solid top. He does enunciate oddly at times, and "Vesti la giubba" came out a bit like "vedi la duba." Disappointingly, the voice retreated in the second half, and the power needed for the furious climax eluded Cura. But perhaps this was all part of his act; Cura took Tonio's last line and choked it out in such an exhausted whisper that the final "e finita" could hardly be heard. But the audience loved Cura and gave him the only standing ovation of the afternoon (at least from about half the audience in orchestra).
Not a memorable afternoon at the San Diego Civic Center, but an entertaining one. Aida and The Pearlfishers remain in the 2008 season.