Met in HD: A dizzy ‘Cavalleria,’ a powerful ‘Pagliacci’
by Terry Ponick – Apr 29, 2015
The Met’s double bill of “verismo” short operas by Mascagni and Leoncavallo are a mixed bag, with inventive, vaudeville-inspired “Pagliacci” coming out on top.
Tenor Marcelo Álvarez is superb as Canio in the Met’s new production of “Pagliacci.” (Photo courtesy of the Met)
WASHINGTON, April 27, 2015 – The Met’s live-in-HD series of movie theater/opera simulcasts is closing its 2014-2015 season this week with a pair of perennially popular short operas—Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.”
Having attended last Saturday’s live simulcast locally, we’d say, in baseball parlance, that this double bill is batting .500. That’s certainly a great winning percentage for your favorite local ball club. But for the Met, it’s a glass half full.
Even occasional opera-goers are familiar with these two operatic warhorses, penned near the end of the 19th century by a pair of Italian composers who, sad to say, are known for little else.
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) had a long and interesting career as a composer, conductor and musician. But for a variety of reasons, only his 1890 one-act “Cavalleria Rusticana” (“Rustic Chivalry,” or “Country Chivalry”) remains popular today, although his “L’amico Fritz” (“My friend Fritz”) is still performed with some frequency in Italy and was recently staged stateside by the Sarasota Opera in 2009.
Mascangni’s contemporary, Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) had a similar and even less successful career as an opera composer. Aside from his 1892 masterpiece, “Pagliacci” (“The clowns”), his operatic output—including his own “La Bohème”—is essentially forgotten today. Similar to Arrigo Boito, he was generally regarded as one of the greatest librettists of his time, however, and collaborated on numerous scores, including Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.”
Both “Cavalleria” and “Pagliacci” are known as “verismo” operas—sung dramas that regard the dramatic element as seriously as the music. Verismo operas largely dispense with the previously in-vogue Classical and Romantic operatic tradition in which composers alternated arias and ensembles (essentially tunes or songs) with passages of recitatif—narrative lines sung rather conversationally in a way that advanced the opera’s plot.
The term “verismo” has been used imprecisely, but that’s of little matter, practically speaking, as you usually know it when you hear it. Although some might disagree, Verdi’s later operas went in this direction, as did Wagner’s later output for that matter. But the second main idea the term is meant to convey is that the underlying opera is “realistic” in the sense that it deals with everyday middle-class or working people as opposed to the preoccupation of earlier operas with the lives and hard times of the wealthy, including royalty and nobility.
This is certainly where “Cavalleria” and “Pagliacci” have made their distinctive mark on the repertoire. Both operas are firmly rooted in lower-class village life. And both emphasize the fact that epic tragedy is not limited to kings and queens.
“Cavalleria” is set in 19th century rural Sicily, and its plot pivots on the churlish and ultimately disastrous behavior of a young villager named Turiddu. In the opera’s early moments, we learn its crucial backstory, discovering that Turiddu, having returned from a stint in the military, has become infuriated that his girlfriend Lola—bored in his absence—has married Alfio, a traveling teamster or merchant.
In a strange act of revenge sex, Turiddu seduces a naïve young woman named Santuzza before discovering that the now-married Lola is still willing and available for a tryst whenever Alfio is on the road.
This being 19th century Sicily, when Santuzza’s indiscretion is discovered, she is shunned by the village and can no longer attend Mass, in particular the village’s upcoming Easter celebration. As is usual in opera, one thing leads to another, leading to the tragic confrontation between Turiddu and Alfio that brings this mini-masterpiece to a close.
“Pagliacci” is also set in rural 19th century Italy, but takes an entirely different approach to tragedy, employing a variation of the time-honored “show within a show” structure to tell its story. Here, the focus is on the misadventures of a troupe of itinerant, low-life actors who wander around the country staging traditional “commedia dell’arte” for the locals, a bit like a traveling carnival show.
In addition to his duties as the thuggish Tonio, baritone George Gagnidze also introduces “Pagliacci” just like an old vaudeville emcee. (Photo courtesy of the Met)
In a realistic touch, one of the eventual characters in the opera opens this opera by standing in front of the curtain to “sell” the audience on what they’re about to see, warning them that sometimes it’s hard to separate a show from real life itself.
At this point, the tale begins as the troupe of actors and backstage workers enters the town to drum up business for the evening show. In short order we’re introduced to the troupe’s irascible boss and star, Canio, his clearly unhappy wife Nedda, the misshapen buffoon and comic actor Tonio, the amiable Beppo and, eventually, Nedda’s secret lover, Silvio, who happens to live in the village.
After a series of offstage misadventures, the bitter Tonio tips off the habitually drunk and habitually jealous Canio about what’s been going on behind his back.
Later in the evening, in the midst of a standard commedia dell’arte laugh fest, things turn suddenly serious on stage in his standard role as the hilariously cuckolded husband—which unfortunately, he actually is. As the local audience—and the opera audience watch in horror, comedy morphs into tragedy as the curtain falls.
David McVicar, the director for this operatic double-bill, updates the costuming and the action of both operas, moving “Cavalleria” up a bit to Sicily as it might have been circa 1900-1910, and updating “Pagliacci” further, to the late 1940s in post-war Italy.
For his general stage setting, he chose to go relatively minimalist in both productions, using a one-size-fits-all set backed by drab, brown, medieval city walls and dominated by a large, rotating central platform to create both motion and scene changes. The idea, symbolically, is meant to demonstrate the clear similarity between both these opera’s tragic and highly personal verismo plots.
This is actually a good idea. But the problem focuses on the use—and overuse—of that dominant rotating platform. While this element works well under minimal use in “Pagliacci,” it comes close to ruining an otherwise marvelously well sung “Cavalleria.”
In addition to using his stage area like a drab, colorless black box in this opera, McVicar, for whatever reason, chooses to keep his giant turntable rotating in near perpetual motion, an unnecessary and at times dizzying effect that proves a tremendous distraction from what’s happening on stage.
Santuzza (Eva-Maria Westbroek) is disgraced and cannot celebrate Easter with the rest of the congregation. (Photo courtesy of the Met)
This whirling dervish effect reminds me of a well-sung but visually awful production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” staged roughly 15 years ago here by the Washington National Opera. For whatever reason, whenever two or more characters would appear on stage, they would sing while constantly whirling and twirling about in unscripted dance-like moments until you just wanted to jump up and scream, “Stop it, for God’s sake!” What it was supposed to do for this production, I will never know.
I was immediately reminded of this awful “Romeo” as I began to realize that McVicar’s rotating perpetual motion machine was never, ever going to stop during this performance of “Cavalleria.” As in Washington’s dizzying “Romeo,” it’s hard to imagine what all this unnecessary movement is supposed to mean or how it’s supposed to enhance this particular opera. But the Met and McVicar would be well advised to turn the darn turntable off once in awhile and allow the singers and chorus to do what they were hired to do without further interference.
Fortunately, the turntable mostly gets a rest in “Pagliacci,” where the acting troupe’s big truck cleverly reminds us of a rehabbed WWII troop carrier. This colorful carny truck takes center stage, piled high with suitcases and props as the show pulls into town in the opera’s first part, while it serves as the performers’ stage in “Pagliacci’s” second stanza as the show-within-the-show cranks toward its inevitable finale.
While “Cavalleria’s” costuming is authentically drab—consisting mostly of varying shades of black as befits this opera’s mood, a nice splash of color is added during the opera’s central—and ironic—Easter hymn of praise as the townspeople/chorus march to the village church hoisting huge, festive and brilliantly-hued statues of the Blessed Virgin and the triumphant Christ. It’s a welcome relief and a highlight for the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, which performed nearly flawlessly in both productions.
“Pagliacci,” as befits its central nature as a traveling comedy show gone terribly wrong, is loaded with color from the outset, mostly on the part of the entertainers. Nattily dressed Canio looks every bit the part of the impresario when we first catch a glimpse of him. His fellow actors are dressed somewhat less impeccably.
But as the play-within-the-play begins, the standard motley of the commedia dell’arte troupe appears, updated, however, to suite a 20th century vaudeville motif. While Beppo/Harlequin/Arlecchino still wears the traditional motley and Canio/Pagliaccio/Pierrot dons an updated but traditional clown suit.
For her part, Nedda/Columbina is attired like a provocative tart in a short, black corset contraption and Tonio/the Fool/Columbina’s visitor is dressed like a stage ventriloquist and indeed operates a talking chicken he’s carrying, a contraption crudely concealed by a false third arm.
It’s in this part of “Pagliacci” that Mr. McVicar comes very close to redeeming his mistakes in “Cavalleria.” We’ve seen “Pagliacci” many times, and it’s often been difficult to distinguish the play-within-the play from the ongoing story itself, as it’s so often staged by the actor-singers with obvious dread as to what will happen next.
In this “Pagliacci,” we get a real vaudeville-style show, adding a trio of Three Stooges-like characters in the opening scene who work with Nedda to put together a celebratory cake for the evening’s dessert, complete with plenty of whipped cream. And we know what that means.
The genuine although occasionally forced gaiety of this playlet is visually and musically funny in the frantic, helter-skelter way that vaudeville always was. It’s so well done that we start to lose ourselves in the comedy and, for once, forget what’s going to happen next as the vengeful Canio enters.
The resulting violent contrast brings everyone up short as ugly reality intrudes on the joy and the laughter, creating the kind of dramatic jolt Leoncavallo must surely have intended. It’s simply a brilliant concept, brilliantly executed by a cast of singer-actors who are really into the entire scene. At last, we can really believe the entire set-up of this opera, a tribute to the best “Pagliacci” we’ve ever seen.
The singers, orchestra and chorus
Tenor Marcelo Álvarez is brilliant as Canio in “Pagliacci.” (Photo courtesy of the Met.)
Which at last brings us to the marvelous artists who mostly double roles in both operas. In spite of the directorial failures of “Cavalleria” and the contrasting stage success of “Pagliacci,” this pair of productions couldn’t have been blessed with a more talented and energetic cast, singer-actors clearly excited to stretch and do new things, particularly in “Pagliacci.”
At the top of the list is tenor Marcelo Álvarez, who sings this double-bill’s key pair of roles, the amoral Turiddu in “Cavalleria” and the murderously jealous Canio in “Pagliacci.” As each opera’s villain/antihero, Álvarez fulfills every gender feminist’s worse nightmare, portraying each character’s brutality and narcissism to the hilt while still managing to sing beautifully in both works.
Most moving of all is Álvarez’ powerful expression of Canio’s immortal outburst of helpless fury, Leoncavallo’s famous brief aria, “Vesti la giubba.” That’s usually translated into English as something like, “Put on your costume,” or “Don your motley colors,” referring to his stage character’s clown outfit.
But when Álvarez sings these words with such bitterness and self-loathing, we hear in our mind something more like, “Put on this stupid, meaningless character and pretend once again you’re someone you are not and never will be.” It’s a riveting moment, and Álvarez makes us believe in a performance that will leave only the heartless unmoved.
Álvarez is fortunate to have been paired with two leading ladies who bring out his best while creating highly sympathetic characters as well.
As “Cavalleria’s” unfortunate Santuzza, soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek brings out the helpless despair of her character, forever ruined in her unforgiving village by the simple act of believing that the amoral Turiddu was really in love with her. Her key vocal moments, particularly in her sorrowful exchanges with Turiddu’s mother, Mama Lucia (mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell) and her heart-rending verbal battles with Turiddu, bring this otherwise drab and whirling production back to the dramatic center.
If anything, soprano Patricia Racette’s over-the-top effort as Leoncavallo’s Nedda is even more impressive. This popular artist always gives every role her best, but she goes the extra mile here, alternating sluttishness and sheer terror at the flick of an emotional switch.
Soprano Patricia Racette (Nedda) plunges into a vaudeville comedy act along with ventriloquist Tonio (George Gagnidze) and three assistants. But things will soon take a nasty turn. (Photo courtesy of the Met)
It’s a fantastic and effective characterization of this character, a onetime guttersnipe and likely lady of the evening who’s had the dubious good fortune to marry the boss of a traveling show who offers her a passably better method of employment along with some measure of respectability. But her gratitude toward Canio is long gone, destroyed by his insane jealousy, an obvious emotion in this case, driven at least in part by his knowledge of her past.
Racette alternates moments of sexual abandon with her lover Silvio (baritone Lucas Meachem) with moments of sheer terror at the hands of both the lustful Tonio and her vengeful husband. Then she surprises us again, donning her risqué outfit and hamming it up as the troupe’s vaudeville show commences.
It’s all great acting on the part of this versatile singer, and it’s made even more effective by she sheer emotional power she packs into her vocal delivery at each crucial interval.
As is true of Álvarez in his portrayal of Canio, we are tugged in two directions, feeling great sympathy for Racette’s Nedda when we see how miserable she is in her sham marriage and stage role, while we are subsequently repelled by her willingness to throw everything she’s gained away forever.
Baritone George Gagnidze tears into his pair of similar roles with a kind of evil relish. As the rough-hewn, crude, but clearly wronged husband Alfio in “Cavalleria,” Gagnidze portrays his character as a considerably less likeable fellow than we’ve seen in other productions of this opera.
Rough, tough and honest, Gagnidze’s Alfio seems popular with the village folk in this production. But he reverts to classic Sicilian male type when the honor of his marriage bed is brought into question, displaying a perhaps justifiable but clearly not admirable thuggish side of his character. Gagnidze sings and acts the part with great relish and, on the whole, we think his portrayal of Alfio here is likely closer to the verismo mark than we’ve seen in those numerous other productions of this opera.
Gagnidze portrays a similar but even less pleasant character in “Pagliacci.” While not playing Tonio as the deformed hunchback we’ve often seen before, Gagnidze’s character is still an ugly, primitive brute who initially draws our sympathy as he endures an unending stream of insults from Nedda, who could care less about what he feels.
But this Tonio quickly snuffs out any sympathy we might feel as he crudely attempts to rape the now-frightened Nedda in response to her continuing disdain. Again, as in his portrayal of Alfio, Gagnidze uses his strong voice roughly, almost savagely, drawing a sharp contrast to this opera’s more placid moments. Again, as is so often the case in this pair of operas, it’s a highly effective performance.
Although the other roles in this classic pair of sung dramas are much smaller, they’re still nicely nuanced. Veteran mezzo Jane Bunnell’s sympathetic Mama Lucia brings at least a measure of human compassion to the generally ruthless nature of “Cavalleria.”
In contrast, young mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson adds a nice touch of feminine predatory nastiness to her small role as Lola, Alfio’s two-timing wife and Turiddu’s occasional mistress. The snarky glances she casts toward poor Santuzza are priceless and add to the rotting moral core of these characters as their lives go on in stark contrast to the Resurrection narrative running in background.
Kudos as well to Lucas Meachem’s portrayal of Silvio, Nedda’s ill-fated but devoted lover in “Pagliacci.” A strapping, impressively hunky baritone, Meachem certainly fits the bill here from a visual standpoint. Fortunately, he also carries an ardent, passionate and eminently masculine voice along with him. His expressions of undying love for Nedda add a genuine poignancy to a relationship that might otherwise appear completely sordid.
And finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the welcome measure of humanity tenor Andrew Stenson brings to his tiny role as Beppe/Arlecchino in “Pagliacci.” Almost alone in an amoral world, Stenson’s Beppo tries to calm the always roiling emotional waters of his troubled fellow thespians, adding both charity and reason to an environment that long ago abandoned both. It’s a welcome ray of sunshine that bursts through in this otherwise relentless pair of tragedies.
Both operas benefit by the usual great work from the Met’s chorus and also by the sympathetic, romantic, and highly energetic performance by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under the baton of Fabio Luisi, currently the company’s principal conductor. It doesn’t get any better.
Now if someone can just find the off-button for that turntable…
“Cavalleria”: ** ½ (2 ½ out of 4 stars, primarily for that annoying turntable)
“Pagliacci”: **** (4 out of 4 for this best-ever production)