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<em>Cavalleria Rusticana</em> and <em>Pagliacci</em> at Covent Garden
08 Dec 2017

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elīna Garanča (Santuzza/left) and ROH Chorus

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore


But, in the event, this performance of Damiano Michieletto’s production of the verismo duo was so compelling that the December chill and Christmas sparkles of the Covent Garden piazza were utterly forgotten and for three hours we were in a village in south Italy, with its family bakery, shabby school hall, kitsch Easter parade, black-veiled mamas and flower-strewn madonnas.

In 2015 , I found the incessantly revolving set distracting and some of Michieletto’s gestures mannered; but, this time round (the first revival) I was absolutely persuaded. How to explain my change of heart? Perhaps it was that revival director Rodula Gaitanou seemed to have found a way to balance stylisation and naturalism in such a way that the movement of cast and chorus around the revolve, and the interweaving of motifs across the two operas, felt genuine and ‘real’. Just as, under the baton of conductor Daniel Oren, the ROH orchestra gave us an introductory tour of the emotional trajectory of Cavalleria, so the revolving set seemed to take us on a stroll through the town, and not just into its homes and houses but into the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.

Inside the Panificio bakery, with its sacks of flour stacked high beside the mechanical weighing scales, the trays of loaves sat waiting for the oven. The Catholic icon perched on a high shelf later found its way into the scuffed school hall where the performance of Pagliacci - advertised on the bakery wall - took place. The children scrabbling for panettone at the bakery window donned tinsel halos and papery wings to form an angelic Easter choir, and after the parade remained in costume to reappear on the cramped school stage in a choral prelude to Pagliacci. The ROH Chorus - as ever, in tremendous voice - wandered casually about the village, gathered in the square for a post-parade knees-up, assembled eagerly for the ensuing entertainment, all with complete naturalism.

There are some surreal and stylised moments too. When the devout villagers raise their candles and adjust their shrouds during the Easter hymn, the gaudy Madonna on the festive float seems to come to life, pointing an accusatory finger at the traumatised Santuzza. And, the meta-theatre of Pagliacci is emphasised not just by the interlocking jigsaw of Paolo Fantin’s set, which allows us to witness parallel action as fiction spills into fact, but also by Alessandro Carletti’s lighting contrasts which pit blinding strip lights against blackness, and a lurid green glow against a rosy-pink shimmer.

What really swept me to the Italian South, though, was the terrific singing of all involved. This was the first time that I have heard Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča and I was struck by the expressive weight of her voice, which burst forth with power and punch - as if the betrayed Santuzza’s distress and dishonour were just too devastating to be contained, literally overwhelming her and all around her too. Indeed, the rich layers and grand plushness of her mezzo seemed almost too majestic for the unlucky lass in a dowdy cardigan, but I guess that’s what Mascagni’s music is telling us: that human emotions have no bounds or boundaries.

I remained unbeguiled by Michieletto’s decision to begin Cavalleria at its end, presenting us with a play of maternal grief as Mamma Lucia bends over the bloody body of Turiddu - a child’s red scooter-bike leaning on the street-lamp adds a touch of sentimentality - and I again found Elena Zilio’s histrionic head-clutching, body-convulsing and hand-wringing to be hyperbolic. But, elsewhere Zilio was a strong presence, physically and vocally, in the production - a true matriarch in every sense.

Alfio - cast, Catherine Ashmore.jpgMark S. Doss (Alfio/centre) and ROH Chorus. Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Mark S. Doss convincingly cast aside the relaxed confidence which Alfio displays when he rolls into town with a car boot full of fashionable wares - the tussle between two girls who fancy the same handbag is a neat touch - for dark-toned menace when he learns of Lola’s betrayal. Martina Belli returned to the latter role and her glossy mezzo-soprano gave the temptress real allure.

Nedda and Tonio.jpgCarmen Giannattasio (Nedda) and Simon Keenlyside (Tonio). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Also reappearing in her 2015 role, Carmen Giannattasio was a persuasive Nedda in Pagliacci, encompassing a gamut from shining ardour to a silvery whisper in her duet with Polish baritone Andrzej Filończyk’s warm-hued Silvio, and acting superbly when ‘Columbine’ is dragged by the raging Canio from harmless play-acting to murderous reality.

Simon Keenlyside injected a terrible hostility into the Prologue of Pagliacci. Alone in Nedda’s claustrophobic, starkly-lit backstage dressing-room, as he invited us to enjoy the ensuing drama, Tonio seemed to sneer with contempt at our gullibility and casual ignorance as he reminded us that what we were about to see involved real people with real emotions. And, Keenlyside made sure that the rejected hunch-back’s latent menace was evident throughout, despite Tonio’s shabbiness and shuffling: think Rigoletto meets Iago.

Lucia and Turiddu.jpgElena Zilio (Mamma Lucia) and Bryan Hymel (Turridu). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

It was American tenor Bryan Hymel, though, who stole the show. Cast as Turiddu, he also stepped into Canio’s shoes (family circumstances obliged the originally cast Fabio Sartori to withdraw from the first three performances), and proved equally compelling in both role debuts, holding nothing back despite the vocal, and expressive, demands. The confident, bright ring of his tenor was imbued with deeper, darker colours when Turridu was confronted by the vengeful Alfio, and in his farewell to Mamma Lucia, Hymel heartbreakingly conveyed the doomed Turridu’s honesty, self-knowledge and vulnerability. Canio’s account of the evening entertainment to come, at the start of Pagliacci, had a lyricism and power that hinted at terrifying tragic potential. And, indeed, Hymel continually ratcheted up the emotional thermometer until the mercury exploded in a blazing conclusion.

Tonio may have spoken the truth when he spat out his closing line, ‘La commedia è finita!’, but the impact of this double bill’s punch will surely be long-lasting.

Claire Seymour

Cavalleria Rusticana : Santuzza - Elīna Garanča, Turiddu - Bryan Hymel, Mamma Lucia - Elena Zilio, Alfio - Mark S. Doss, Lola - Martina Belli.

Pagliacci: Canio - Bryan Hymel, Tonio - Simon Keenlyside, Nedda - Carmen Giannattasio, Beppe - Luis Gomes, Silvio - Andrzej Filończyk, Two Villagers - Andrew O’Connor/Nigel Cliffe.

Director - Damiano Michieletto, Conductor - Daniel Oren, Set designs - Paolo Fantin, Costume designs - Carla Teti, Lighting design - Alessandro Carletti, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Wednesday 6th December 2017.

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