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José Cura as Canio and Nuccia Focile as Nedda in Leoncavallo's
07 Apr 2009

Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci at the MET

The current revival of Cav and Pag at the Met went off like clockwork, with all the comfort and reliability that implies for a repertory house and all the success these tried and true verismo stalwarts merit.

Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana
Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci

Cavalleria Rusticana — Santuzza: Ildikó Komlósi; Mamma Lucia: Jane Bunnell; Lola: Ginger Costa Jackson; Turiddu: José Cura; Alfio: Alberto Mastromarino.

Pagliacci — Nedda: Nuccia Focile; Canio: José Cura; Tonio: Alberto Mastromarino; Silvio: Christopher Maltman.

Conducted by Pietro Rizzo. Metropolitan Opera, performance of April 2.

Above: José Cura as Canio and Nuccia Focile as Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.


No one was under par but there were very few surprises, few thrills or chills. But each opera did conceal one surprise — one shock — one small but significant vocal revelation — that made the evening other than ordinary fare.

The spotlight on the curtain just before it rose on Franco Zeffirelli’s almost too-accurate Sicilian mountain village drew from us soft gasps of alarm, but it was just an announcement that José Cura, though suffering from a cold, would be singing both leading tenor roles in any case. (Domingo, his mentor, used to make such announcements all the time in the ’70s.) In the event, his opening serenade did indeed sound labored — but when was the last time you heard any tenor, even in the pink of health, sing that aria of sated love with an easy, leggiero line? For the rest of the night he was fine, a bit gruff — as he usually is — and with no ringing at the top, which some might miss. It’s a perfectly decent way to put these parts over. Gigli fans will mourn, but he’s been dead a long time.

Cav_Pag_Met.gifIldikó Komlósi as Santuzza and José Cura as Canio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

I was interested in the ladies of the evening. Ildikó Komlósi sang the most mellow-sounding Herodias of my experience last fall — no eldritch screamer but a chic, handsome hostess having trouble controlling her adolescent daughter — and I wondered how that enjoyable take on Strauss would translate to Mascagni’s tormented peasant. Komlósi is a fine actress, and hurled herself about the story and the stage, but her essentially lyric instrument (though she also sings Amneris and Eboli, which call for power) did not at first warm to its task, to the expression of desperation — Santuzza is always on the verge of hysteria, she says nothing calmly, she opens her mouth and her whole anguished life is in her utterances. Komlósi’s beautiful voice and Germanic (okay, Hungarian) vibrato are pleasing, but she did not become intense until the duets with Cura and Alberto Mastromarino’s dry, not very threatening Alfio pushed her to forget herself and go wild. Santuzza has tripped up many experienced singers; I did not feel she had it quite down, but she is a voice and an artist of interest.

No part is too small for Jane Bunnell to make it interesting — on such character performers do repertory companies rely, and her dignified Mamma Lucia was a pleasure. But then out came Lola, a youngster from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists’s Program, one Ginger Costa Jackson, tall, slim, very pretty, a bit too whorish about the sashay (an error made by too many Lolas — she’s a respectable wife in a prudish small town, and no one but Santuzza suspects she’s anything else), but — the voice! No light mezzo here (as one is used to), but a deep, penetrating, perfectly produced contralto with exciting colors. She would make quite an effect in a range of Handel roles, trouser or otherwise.

CAV-Bunnell-and-Cura_6211.gifJane Bunnell as Mamma Lucia and José Cura as Canio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

The lady in Pagliacci — there’s only one, remember — was Nuccia Focile, a charming soubrette in the past (an adorable Despina in Cosí fan tutte), who sang a mediocre Nedda, the voice unsupported, the coloratura imprecise in both “Stridono lassu” and the play-within-the-play. The only time she rose to the demands of this curious, death-defying figure was during her impassioned love duet with Silvio — and here was the evening’s second surprise: Christopher Maltman. This striking and sexy British baritone, a noted lieder singer as well as a Billy Budd and a specialist in Mozart roles, filled the house with an easy, dark, focused, thrilling baritone and was an equally thrilling actor. Too, he sang with the most perfect Italian enunciation of the night. This is a voice with star quality and a rare musical intelligence, a singer one is eager to hear again in a dozen roles or in recital. Beside him, Cura and Mastromarino, the evening’s Canio and Tonio, sounded effective but ordinary — they wrung no sobs from me.

Pietro Rizzo had a firm hand on the dramatic flow of the evening in the pit; the resonant celli seemed especially to flower, and I clearly heard echoes of Wagner in Pagliacci, whenever Tonio was conniving. The Zeffirelli staging with all its animals and all its children and all its gradual dawn and sunset lighting changes and all its clowning extras gives audiences a notion of what grand opera used to be about, and why young directors have been so eager to change it. A ringing Canio, a gutsy Santuzza and a real Nedda would make it for me.

John Yohalem

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