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The Light in the Piazza: New Productions of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci at the Met

You can read my review of the Met’s new productions of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera here on the Huffington Post.

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Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci run through May 8th at the Metropolitan Opera. Tickets are available here.

Photo: Metropolitan Opera/ Cory Weaver

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One comment on “The Light in the Piazza: New Productions of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci at the Met

  1. April 25, 2015

    CAV & PAG – Critique and Comments

    Cavalleria Rusticana (Sicilian Code of Honor)

    Pietro Mascagni’s one-act Verismo masterpiece takes place around the piazza of a small Sicilian village. It is Easter morning. The church bells are soon to ring signaling the commencement of the procession of the colorful statues of the Madonna and assorted Saints. Mama Lucia’s wine shop and osteria are ready for business. As the curtain rises, the gathering town folk can hear Turiddu (the bad-boy tenor) sing the beautiful “Siciliana” aria from off-stage to the bad-girl mezzo soprano Lola. Spirits are high and a celebration of joyous religiosity will shortly sweep over the piazza (“Inneggiamo, al Signore risorto – Let us praise, the Lord has risen”). Women are dressed in the cheerful garb of the holiday. “Gli aranci olezzano sui verdi margini – The air is sweet with the blossoms of oranges”, they sing with a happy heart and a smile. The sun peeks through.

    But not today, not at the Met.

    The Scottish producer of this twin bill, Sir David McVicar, decided that bright lights, colorful garments or even a titch of happiness were inappropriate for this operatic Verismo package. So, he surprises us all with a dimly lit set reminiscent of a Redstone warehouse interior close to the old Hoboken (NJ) port, with flooring in the shape of a raised rectangle. And lots of empty chairs, all around the stage. Rather than allowing the audience to indulge itself leisurely in the gorgeous music of Mascagni’s prelude, Sir David raises the curtain. The girl Santuzza dolefully starts moving across the stage only to occupy a lonely chair, one she would return to, time and again, during the entire show. Ostracized from her friends was the statement made here. Eventually, the audience would learn that poor little Santuzza was indeed excommunicated from church and community because that scalawag Turiddu had stolen her honor, without love, without matrimony, with plenty of empty promises but no real commitment. And all the while, he had diddled around with his former girlfriend Lola, now married to the town’s transportation boss Alfio. I thought that was an awful lot of punishment, even in rural Sicily, in light of the fact that all the other scoundrels in this melodrama were free to sit anywhere they wanted. Porca miseria! As Cavalleria progresses, lots of villagers keep coming and going, some bop the Sicilian version of the “Charlston”, some with lit candles in their hands to “shush” away the dark. And soon, Sir David’s pièce de résistance, the raised rectangle, starts to unhurriedly spin like a Lazy Susan, then stop and spin and stop and spin until just about the end of the show. Too much spinning, not enough light, sun or colors. Alfio, of course, did not know of Lola’s peccadillos. But as soon as he finds out, matters start to get real ugly. When finally the transportation boss confronts Turiddu, the latter accepts his challenge to a deadly duel. The outcome of the quarrel must surely be known by now: Alfio 1: Turiddu 0.

    But that is not all by a long shot. Before Turiddu rushed off stage to find his demise, he left behind a couple of significant accomplishments. First, he managed to reduce Mama Lucia’s wine inventory by half, probably decreasing his chances for a successful knife fight outcome by an equal amount. Second, he got his mama to promise him – should he perish – to personally take care of poor Santuzza for the rest of her life, thus inadvertently making Mamma Lucia (Jane Bunnell) the first single payer social security institution in all of Sicily!

    Ginger Costa-Jackson, the young Sicilian-American mezzo in the bad-girl Lola role combined a polished voice with appropriately mocking acting. Marcelo Alvarez portrayed Turiddo without the customary brutal edge while the Georgian baritone George Gagnidze offered a strong Alfio, the town bully for sure. Eva-Maria Westbrock (as Santuzza) is a stately and sturdy Dutch soprano with great accomplishments in the Wagner repertoire. She retains an unusual squillo in her powerful voice that has a tendency to turn into a piercing sound in the high ranges. In total, I thought she was miscast in the role of Santuzza, the shy, naïve girl looking for love but finding only dejection and shame. It was clear to me that the powerful Miss Westbrock is much more at home in the great halls of Valhalla or in the Ring of Fire kicking serious Nibelung butt rather than spending the rest of her life in empty chairs, somewhere in a warehouse, in the forlorn Sicilian countryside. Verisimilitude?!
    Silent kudos must go to Costume Designer Moritz Junge. He clearly managed to save a ton of cash for the Metropolitan Opera with the simple garments he provided for most of the singers, the choristers and dancers. To supply the dark brown and undistinguished frocks, it appeared that prior to the show he and his buddies were able to commandeer a large number of cassocks and habits while an unsuspecting bunch of monks or nuns were taking a shower in an Upstate NY monastery.

    One more issue: The libretto for Cavalleria Rusticana is written in Sicilian Italian (known as “Sicilianu”). Mascagni took great care selecting librettists (Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci) who had a good understanding of this special language. Control of diction is always an issue in any opera, and Sicilianu is rather more “prickly” than standard Italian. None of the five key singers in this CAV production are native Italian speakers, save for Ms. Costa-Jackson. That lack of vocal authenticity contributed, in my opinion, to an uneven production, dark and quite dreary, lacking spark and passion, all amplified by a set design that strayed too far to be veristic.

    But make no mistake. Even an imperfect production of Cavalleria Rusticana cannot drain all the blood out of this great Verismo opera poster child. Mascagni’s music endures forever.

    Pagliacci (Clowns)

    Today’s new production by the very same Sir David McVicar was the most vulgar version of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s masterpiece I have ever seen. It was also one of the very best! This tragicomedy originally set into Italy’s impoverished Calabria region of the mid-19th century was “updated” to the 1940’s but remained in the same venue. It worked. Sir David and friends poured all the fire, color, and melodramatic emotions missing from CAV into a PAG that was outrageous, funny, sad, vile and brassy. Verismo as true as one would have found it in a little village somewhere in the toe region of the Italian peninsula during the middle of the Second Big War.

    This new Pagliacci was supported by a magnificent cast that worked together like they had done this gig for years. Moreover, each member seemed to truly enjoy the staging and character direction. Even Maestro Luisi had started to roll up his sleeves and relentlessly drive the great Met Orchestra. They celebrated a Pit Fest below, while above the pit, on the stage, this emotional melodrama within a melodrama, loaded with color and action, lust, betrayal, emotions and any other kind of hot peppers you could throw into the broth began to simmer, cook and eventually boil over. When it was all done – La commedia é finita! – all of us had got our money’s worth.

    I had long regarded the Argentinian tenor Marcelo Alvarez (Canio) as a fine journeyman singer with a reliable voice but a propensity for frantic acting, a bit in the genre of Beniamino Gigli or Franco Corelli where tears and sighs have no difficulty keeping pace with other emotional eruptions. Mr. Alvarez’ Canio today, immediately following his performance in Cavalleria was first rate, different but totally veristic. Sir David added an alcohol problem to the character making him even more impulsive and unpredictable. It worked well, adding humor, sadness, menace and rage. The Georgian baritone George Gagnidze (Tonio), also doing double-duty today, performed Tonio with a sneer and a tear and started this whole new Pagliacci package with a rousing “Si Può?” that offered a colorful window to what was about to come. Patrice Racette, the American soprano, is one of today’s most accomplished singers and actors with a huge repertoire across a wide spectrum of roles. Playing a sultry, slutty but sincere Nedda, her vocal power and presentation worked to perfection in moments of passion, fear and mockery.

    Venite, onoratevi, Signori e Signore. A ventitrè ore, a ventitrè ore! (Loosely: Come, Ladies & Gents, enjoy yourselves, you must see the show at sundown!)

    W. B. Burger

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