Monday, April 27, 2015

Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci

When the classic verismo double bill of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci last appeared at the Met, in 2009, it was clear that Franco Zeffirelli's war-horse production was badly in need of retirement. Six years later, a new production has arrived, helmed by Sir David McVicar, who's easily the most reliable director currently working in the Gelb Met. As seen over the weekend (at a performance that was also simulcast into movie theaters), McVicar's stagings scored a success, with the Mascagni appropriately dark and impassioned and the Leoncavallo brimming with passion and pain just underneath its brightly-colored surface.

Marcelo Alvarez and Eva Maria Westbroek
Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Aside from the creakiness of the previous production, the raison d'etre for this new production was star tenor Marcelo Alvarez's desire to sing the leading tenor roles in both operas. However, the first opera--set here in 1900--really belongs to the soprano. Santuzza, excommunicated (a faith worse than death in a repressive Catholic society) and scorned, longs for her former lover, Turiddu, who has returned to the bed of his married former flame, Lola. Lola's husband, the rich driver Alfio, is a vengeful and violent man; when the jealous Santuzza informs him of his wife's activities, she signs Turiddu's death warrant.

In McVicar's production, Santuzza remains onstage throughout the entire hour-long opera, silently watching from the periphery when the action doesn't involve her. It's a wise, striking choice, a reminder that she lives on the margins, integral to the life of the village though shunned by her neighbors. Especially striking was the staging of the central Easter mass (the opera takes place on Easter Sunday), which Santuzza hears from outside the church. As she prays and sings the stirring "Inneggiamo, il Signor non é morto" ("Rejoice, the Lord is not dead"), the audience is reminded of the opera's important context: though it takes place on the Catholic calendar's holiest day of forgiveness, it is something Santuzza will never receive from her supposedly pious neighbors.

Santuzza is a role that's too often cast with over-the-hill sopranos and mezzos hanging on to the last vestiges of their careers; thankfully, those days appear to be over. The Dutch soprano Eva Maria Westbroek practically owns Sieglinde these days, and scored a palpable triumph at the Met last fall, in a rare revival of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Her forays into the Italian repertoire haven't always proven so successful; she seemed uncomfortable last season in Francesca di Rimini, though that particular opera does its sopranos no favors.

Her Santuzza, however, is a miracle. Some critics at the opening performance noted a liberal use of vibrato and spreading in her upper register; neither were evident on Saturday, where she sang strongly, with even distribution and seemingly boundless energy. Her acting was equally convincing, entirely authentic and largely dramatic without veering into caricature. My only complaint is that she didn't look Italianate at all; rather than wearing her luxurious flaxen hair, she should have been outfitted with a dark wig.

The same could not be said for her Turiddu. To call Alvarez a poor actor verges on understatement; he's a park-and-barker, a deployer of stock gestures and outsize facial expressions. All were on display here, and seemed especially evident when played against a natural actress like Westbroek. His voice took time to warm up, as well. Turiddu's opening aria, "O Lola, ch'ai di latti la camissa" ("O Lola, your dress white as milk"), sung off-stage, was painful, though his voice appeared freer and healthier by "Ah, lo vedi!" ("Ah, you see!"), his great duet with Santuzza. Still, it was hard to watch him and not long for a Jonas Kaufmann or Aleksandr Antonenko to match Westbroek's vocal and dramatic prowess.

As Alfio, George Gagnidze sounded more elegant and in control of the vocal line than I'd ever heard him. Ginger Costa-Jackson's Lola confirmed that she's ready to move up from the comprimaria department to the big leagues; with her smoky mezzo, her dark looks, and her alluring stage presence, it was easy to imagine her as an ideal Carmen or Rosina. Jane Bunnell brought pathos to the small role of Turiddu's mother, Mamma Lucia. (Costa-Jackson and Bunnell both sang the same roles in the 2009 revival of the Zeffirelli production).

Gagnidze returned for Pagliacci, as well, in the role of Tonio, who sings the opera's famous prologue. This production takes place in 1950, and Gagnidze makes his first appearance dressed as a mid-century lounge singer, complete with long-cord microphone and polyester leisure suit. It was another vocal triumph for Gagnidze, and in addition to sounding better than ever, he also appeared more comfortable than any previous role he'd undertaken at the Met. (He'll return to Tonio in the production's first revival next year, though a different baritone will play Alfio).

Alvarez also seemed more in his element as Canio, the jealously possessive clown. His singing was more robust throughout, though the famous "Vesti la giubba" ("Put on your costume") began under pitch and was at least partially shouted. Still, Canio is more than one aria, and Alvarez mostly delivered. In fact, his deficits as an actor might have actually helped him in the role--you really felt that he was the man struggling to play his part, to get through his performance without cracking.

Marcelo Alvarez, Patricia Racette and the cast
Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
As Nedda, Canio's co-star and unfaithful wife, the American soprano Patricia Racette acted well but sounded tired. She's been a favorite of mine for years, but even I couldn't ignore the patchiness of her middle voice. She compensated by singing low whenever possible, and using as much vibrato as she could get away with, and she managed to get through the performance. Although she sounded more confident in the opera's final scenes--the play within a play--Nedda's lovely aria "Stridono lassù" was anything but, and I worry about the standard of her future performances.

Fabio Luisi, the Met's principal conductor, worked his usual magic in the pit. He is an artist as comfortable conducting Lulu as he is La Boheme, and his consummate musicianship is always on display. He drew fine readings of both scores, and they ended up sounding almost refined without losing their red-wine and firebrand energy.

With gorgeous sets by Rae Smith and costumes (by Moritz Junge) that evoke Italian neo-realist cinema, I foresee this production becoming a reliable and exciting mainstay for seasons to come.

[Front balcony, full price tickets]

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