Sydney Opera House: “Cavalleria rusticana” & “Pagliacci”

Sydney, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 2017 Opera Season.
Opera in one act, libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci.
Music Pietro Mascagni
Mamma Lucia 
Compare Turiddu  DIEGO TORRE
Compar Alfio 
Opera in two acts and a prologue.
Libretto and music Ruggero Leoncavallo
Tonio/Taddeo JOSÉ CARBÓ    
Canio/Pagliaccio DIEGO TORRE
Nedda/Colombina  ANNA PRINCEVA
Beppe/Arlecchino  JOHN LONGMUIR
Orchestra & Chorus Opera Australia
Conductor Andrea Licata
AO Chorus Master  Anthony Hunt
Director Damiano Michieletto revival Director  Rodula Gaitanou
Set Designer Paolo Fantin
Costume Designer Carla Teti
Lighting Designer  Alessandro Carletti
Lighting realised by   Gary Dooley
Co-production with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Göteborg Opera Sweden and La Monnaie Brussels.
Sydney. 12th January 2017.
If it’s true, and it is true, that a ‘crime of passion’ related to honour, betrayal and abandonment  is eported every day in modern Italy, then the verismo model of opera, with it’s theme of dramatic love stories doomed by the  tragic passions and dynamics usually equated with the archaic values of the conservative and religious peasant world of the deep south, is still widely relevant.  The innovative and original Italian director, Damiano Michieletto has given Opera Australia’s latest production, Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, a convincing collocation in 1980’s Italy, providing the conventional setting with a fresh aspect absolutely consistent with the original context. He also cleverly references the two individual operas one within the other, giving a continuity to the evening and avoiding a repetition of similar themes and ambience, and stimulating a more subtle perception of the unwinding events. Only at Silvio’s entry in I Pagliacci, do we realize that the couple flirting during the intermezzo in Cavalleria were Nedda and Silvio. And a possible epilogue to Cavalleria is suggested by Santuzza’s repentance and rapprochement with Mamma Lucia  enacted during the Pagliacci intermezzo. The playbills for the performance of the travelling company of I Pagliacci as part of the Easter festivities are affixed during Cavalleria.  The opening tableau faithfully replicated the all too familiar photos of scenes of  horror and grief at violent public murders and the psychological and emotional tension was constantly tightened as the opera progressed. Each chorus member was individually and painstakingly created as a distinctive and genuine villager down to the absolute authenticity of their gesticulations. Relationships and situations could be envisaged. There was never a lull in the periphery action, from the daily bakery activity to the aimless loitering and gossip.
All this is masterfully reflected in the set design by Paolo Fantin, the lighting design by Alessandro Carletti and in the understated variety of detail in the commonplace clothing of the period designed by Carla Teti. The scenery made no concessions to the usually picturesque representation of a typical Sicilian village, subtly providing the motivation for the quest for escapism which is an underlying issue of the two operas. The stark neon tubes lighting a bleak, unadorned shop front with a heavy metal rolling shutter and the rudimentary parish hall in Pagliacci suggested a bleak town devoid of character where delights were few. The director and designers have adhered faithfully and rigorously to the characteristics of the verismo movement to which both operas belong; a direct style which deals with the hard and often hopeless reality of life of a southern Italy often tied to a backward and wretched way of life.
Maximum advantage was obtained from the revolving stage allowing the scene and time changes to flow during the orchestral moments. The deceptively simple sets and their manner of rotation gave a spatial illusion to the scenes which went beyond the confines of this very small opera theatre stage.  There were other interesting devices which brought  a fresh perspective to often cliched and routine renditions of these operas and the director makes the most of every opportunity to create tension and character interest which enhance the story without ever misrepresenting it. The most apparent was the juxtaposition of the Colombina Arlecchino duet to the backstage, where Canio is waiting to go on.  Canio, in his inebriated hallucination, imagines the onstage scene before him with Silvio instead of Arlecchino making love to Nedda, at which point he rushes on stage completely distraught. Throughout the operas the director and designers make the most of every opportunity to create stories rich in humanity and character interest. From the beginning they carefully and meticulously create and maintain a dramatic tension and grip on the ever emerging situations.
The star of the evening was the Mexican tenor Diego Torre and not only because he sang the two taxing roles of Turiddu and Canio back to back.  Apart from the clear and clean vocality of John Longmuir as Beppe in Pagliacci, Torre was the only principal character whose diction was comprehensible. This in turn gave a much greater vocal and dramatic incisiveness to his part and greater weight and intensity to his expressivity and phrasing. He communicated the musical and literal intention of his words and his grit and determination never wavered.  The baritone, José Carbó, in the roles of Alfio and Tonio, was at his best and most vocally convincing in the Tonio/Nedda duet. Otherwise his two very powerful roles did not manage to communicate an inner core. The very essence of verismo opera is to convey the dramatic meaning and this didn’t happen. His prologue in Pagliacci, one of opera’s great show stoppers, was unprepossessing and when he  was given the famous last utterance of Pagliacci(more often given to Canio), “La commedia è finita!”, people around me actually giggled. It didn’t work.
The soprano, Dragana Radakovic‘s strength is definitely her strong and full upper range. Unfortunately most of Santuzza’s part lies quite low where her voice sounded covered and her diction indistinct. Dominica Matthews‘s portrayal of Mamma Lucia was concerned and frightened rather than authoritative and firm, which affected her vocal clarity.  Sian Pendry was a naturally seductive and therefore most credible Lola who carried off her role with southern languor. In Pagliacci, Anna Princeva‘s Nedda came across as neurotic rather than passionate and it was difficult to sympathise with her character. Her high register strong and firm but her middle register lacking in clarity and focus. In the duet with Silvio her phrases were pushed and charged rather than legato and languid. The beauty of Samuel Dundas’ burnished timbre and easy style endowed his Silvio with a refined and gentlemanly character which seemed a mismatch with the Nedda character.
The chorus was precise and attentive to all expression markings giving their scenes verve, colour and character. Their sound was round and full-bodied in the Easter procession, gossipy and excited in the Pagliacci audience scene. Fine playing from the orchestra although in the luscious, lyrical, legato string moments one felt the lack of numbers in their ranks. The direction under the conductor Andrea Licata was rather generic and flat with a few hair raising ensemble moments when the usually confident chorus suddenly galvanised their attention on him. This very satisfying and original production is a  co-production with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Göteborg Opera Sweden, and La Monnaie Brussels.