Scorned love can have dire consequences, and when it involves adultery, it can lead to jealous rage and violent death. The Met Opera's striking new production of the twin-bill of Cavelleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, with the tenor Marcelo Alvarez singing the dual roles of cuckolder in the first and cuckold in the latter, restores all the passion and drama to a pair of old operatic warhorses.
The new Met staging by the Scottish director David McVicar and his design team, especially Rae Smith's sets and Moritz Junge's costumes, both making house debuts, takes opera verismo to a new level, especially in the Cavalleria, where a circle of chairs effectively re-creates a Sicilian village, from piazza to taverna, circa 1900, and the entire town is dressed in black as though they were all attending a Mafia funeral. There is also a solemn religious procession with the always excellent Met chorus carrying life-sized statues while singing the Mascagni's moving Easter Chorus.
For Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, McVicar has moved the action to the post-World War II years of the late 1940's, set in a village somewhere in the Italian Mezzogiorno region of Calabria. A battered truck that could be U.S. Army surplus transports the touring commedia dell'arte troupe, telephone lines sag from the flies, and the laundry hangs from windows. One incongruous touch, however, is having the Prologue sung by what seems to be a refugee from a 1950's British music hall while engaging in a tug of war with a trio of stage hands doing a Three Stooges impersonation.
All in all, however, it is an exciting new staging and one the Met will make available to audiences around the world when it simulcasts the April 25 matinee performance to more than 2,000 theaters in some 64 countries as part of its Live in HD series, the last of this season.
Beyond the visual delights of the production is the music from two of the most enduring operas in the repertory, small works that came just two years apart and left their imprint on the future not only of opera but of the theater, fiction, and, later on, the cinema as well.
Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, which premiered in Rome in 1890, brought the young composer instant success for creating a new type of opera that focused on ordinary people in everyday situations. Two years later, another young composer named Ruggero Leoncavallo wrote Pagliacci, another short work that similarly dealt with common people, and the movement called verismo was born.
The two operas have been twinned in countless productions over the past century and more - the Metropolitan was the first house to put the two works together on the same bill, and they have been among the most frequently performed there. This new production premiere marked the 713th performance of Pagliacci and the 672nd of Cavalleria.
Each opera tells the story of an adulterous affair that ends in murder. In Cavalleria Mascagni used a story from the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga about a young bravo named Turiddu who dumps his girlfriend Santuzza and rekindles an affair with an old flame, Lola, though she has since married another villager, Alfio. It is resolved with a knife fight, which is the way Sicilians supposedly settled such disputes.
The music is simple, sweepingly romantic and dramatic, like a grand score for a movie, and the orchestra and splendid Met chorus carry much of the storytelling. The lovely and familiar intermezzo, often played alone as an orchestral piece, is rendered beautifully by the superb Met Orchestra under Fabio Luisi's assured baton.
Pagliacci is a bit more complicated. Canio, the lead actor in the troupe, is married to Nedda. Tonio, one of the company, makes a pass at Nedda but is rebuffed, though she is carrying on with a handsome local named Silvio. After Canio learns of her infidelity, that evening's performance of the Harlequin and Columbine comedy turns tragic in a play-within-a-play second act that again involves knives.
The music is likewise more complex, with arias defining the characters and advancing the story as it builds toward a climax. The opening Bell Chorus sets the scene, and the solos are some of the most dramatic in all opera.
Alvarez, one of the Met's most reliable tenors, takes on both Turiddu in Cavalleria and Canio in Pagliacci. It is an arduous and rare undertaking and Alvarez carries it off with ease. His voice is strong and clear, and he conveys all the pain and pathos of a doomed lover. His "Vesti la giubba" in Pagliacci, a mainstay for all tenors (Caruso made it a signature piece), was anguished and moving without his resorting to the sobbing that often accompanies the aria's final notes.
The Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek is compelling as Santuzza in Cavalleria, especially in her big aria "Voi lo sapete." Her duet with Alvarez was quite splendid. Patricia Racette delivers a fine performance as Nedda in Pagliacci, fiery in her aria "Stridono lassu" and sultry in her love scenes with Silvio, making out on the running board of the truck.
And in another double performance, the Georgian baritone Gagnidze is admirable both as Alfio in Cavalleria and as Tonio in Pagliacci.