Friday 4 December 2015

Italian realist Cav and Pag at Covent Garden

Cavalleria Rusticana - Royal Opera House - (c)ROH, photo Catherine Ashmore
Dimitri Platanias, members of the Royal Opera Chorus and the Alfa Giulietta
Cavalleria Rusticana - Royal Opera House - (c)ROH, photo Catherine Ashmore
Mascagni Cavalleria Rusticana, Leoncavallo Pagliacci; Aleksandrs Antonenko, Dimitri Platanias, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Carmen Giannattasio, dir: Damiano Michieletto, cond: Antonio Pappano; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 03 2015
Star rating: 4.5

Cav and Pag updated to the 1980's with some strongly musical and dramatic performances

Cavalleria Rusticana - Royal Opera House - (c)ROH, photo Catherine Ashmore
Cavalleria Rusticana
(c)ROH, photo Catherine Ashmore
The new double bill of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci at Covent Garden was the first time the Royal Opera had performed Cav and Pag since 1989 when the Zeffirelli production was last given. That the new production was being directed by Damiano Michieletto, who was responsible for last season's controversial production of Rossini's Guillaume Tell (see my review), meant that anticipation was high at the first night, 3 December 2015. There was a strong cast with Aleksandrs Antonenko as both Turiddu and Canio, Dimitri Platanias as Alfio and Tonio, with Eva-Maria Westbroek as Santuzza, Carmen Giannattasio as Nedda plus Elena Zilio, Martina Belli, Benjamin Hulett and Dionysios Sourbis. The sets were designed by Paolo Fantin with costumes by Carla Teti and lighting by Alessandro Carletti. Antonio Pappano conducted.

Carmen Giannattasio, Benjamin Hulett, Dimitri Platanias, Aleksandrs Antonenko (C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Pagliacci - Carmen Giannattasio, Benjamin Hulett, Dimitri Platanias,
Aleksandrs Antonenko  - (c) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Michieletto's take on Cav and Pag was a lot more sympathetic to the works' structure than his production of Guillaume Tell had been (one might almost say that the Cav and Pag production was more traditional). Perhaps Michieletto simply likes Verismo more than he does French grand opera, but the recent profile of the director in Opera Magazine had been revealing reading regarding the variety of his output. Whatever the reasons, this new production was a strong and largely intelligent version of this popular yet tricky double bill.

Michieletto and his designers, Paolo Fantin and Carla Teti, seem to have been inspired to a certain extent by Italian realist cinema. Certainly the production, with its extensive use of the revolve, kept the action moving in a very filmic way. The setting was the late 20th century; Alfio's car in Cavalleria Rusticana was a 1985/86 Alfa Giulietta model, quite a rare care nowadays (it seemed to be on Madrid number plates which may have been a comment about the extent of Alfio's journeyings).  

Dionysios Sourbis - (C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Mama Lucia's bakery, Cavalleria Ruticana - Dionysios Sourbis
(C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Cavalleria Rusticana was set in and around Mama Lucia's bakery where we even saw the staff making the bread (having seen them put loaves into the oven, I was disappointed to find that the realism did not extend to them getting the baked bread out 30 minutes later!). All the events of the opera happened in and around here, and Michieletto set the production in the context of a vividly depicted community. The production worked well and certainly did not go against the dramaturgy of the opera, partly because the libretto though specific as to location has many timeless elements and the sense of community is important.

The production had a two or three distinctive pensées. The prelude started with the depiction of the murder of a young man (whilst Turiddu was singing to Lola off-stage), and the whole production cycled round to the depiction of Turiddu's murder in exactly the same scene as if the events depicted were simply part of a common cycle. During the Easter Hymn the villagers carried a statue of the Virgin Mary, at one point the lighting changed and the villagers froze, whilst Santuzza (Eva-Maria Westbroek) implored the Virgin. The statue came to life and pointed at Santuzza implacably. Then during the Intermezzo we saw Nedda from Pagliacci (Carmen Giannattasio) putting up posters for Pagliacci and flirting with one of the men from the bakery, who would prove to be her lover Silvio (Dionysios Sourbis). This cross linking was carried through into Pagliacci when during the intermezzo there we saw Santuzza in tears talking to a priest and apparently pregnant and then meeting Mama Lucia. I found this cross-linking disturbing and unsatisfactory. The two operas have no real link apart from a commonality of style, and during one opera the last thing we want is to be thinking about characters in the other one. Frankly, it felt as if Michieletto had interpolated a bit of Mascagni into Leoncavallo's opera and vice versa.

Aleksandrs Antonenko, Carmen Giannattasio - (C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Pagliacci - Aleksandrs Antonenko, Carmen Giannattasio
(C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Having created this sense of a community in the first opera Michieletto clearly thought he could take some of it for granted in the second. In Pagliacci we met the vivid characters from the village again, as personified by the chorus, but the setting was not the village square but a theatre cum village hall. This required some violence to the opera's libretto, there was no sense of outside so Nedda (Carmen Giannattasio) had to imagine the birds in her aria and instead of the villagers singing as they go to vespers during the famous chorus, we watched them perform the chorus in concert as an accompaniment to a children's religious pageant.

I wasn't sure whether the rather twee costume drama that the actors were presenting as a play within the opera really worked in terms of the 1980's setting. The problem with espousing realism is that it makes your viewers wonder about details like this. Certainly the villagers enthusiasm for the players seemed over the top in context.

Elena Zilio, Aleksandrs Antonenko - (C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Cavalleria Rusticana - Elena Zilio, Aleksandrs Antonenko
(C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Michieletto's biggest pensée took place during the play, whilst Benjamin Hulett was singing Beppe's serenade the set turned (effectively placing Hulett off stage) and we saw Canio (Aleksandrs Antonenko) drinking and obsessing about Nedda's infidelity. Then the characters came out of the mirror and for the remainder of the play, until Canio's entry, we caught glimpses of the 'players' in the theatre (in fact doubles) but the main musical action was played out backstage as if Nedda, Beppe and Tonio were taunting Canio. This gave us an insight into Canio's mind and got over the fact that the play itself, in Leoncavallo's setting, is musically the least compelling part of the production. But it did mean that when Canio breaks out of role during the play, the shock value is very much lost.

One problem in both operas though, was that Michieletto took both operas' casual misogyny at face value. I have seen productions which make Santuzza a far stronger figure, but here she accepts her role as the penitent Magdalene with no equivalent castigation of Turiddu. In Pagliacci all three men in Nedda's life treat her as their possession. Beppe's intensity suggests that if Nedda goes with him she will be replacing the possessiveness of Canio with that of another man, and of course because Tonio can't have her he rapes her. It is possible to rectify these attitudes by making Santuzza and Nedda stronger, without too much violence to the plot but Michieletto seemed content not to.

Dimitri Platanias, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Carmen Giannattasio - (C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Pagliacci - Dimitri Platanias, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Carmen Giannattasio
(C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
The productions worked because Michieletto and Pappano drew incredibly strong performances from their cast, riveting in some cases. In Cavalleria Rusticana Eva-Maria Westbroek made strong Santuzza within the confines o Michieletto's traditional view of the role. She sang with full and vibrant tone, but the quality of her voice seemed to reflect her performances of Isolde and Sieglinde. Vocally I wanted something more Italianate with a sense of vibrant line and rather less dramatic soprano vibrato, though her dramatic performance was wonderfully vivid and could not be faulted. As Turiddo, Aleksandrs Antonenko did what he could with a relatively simplistic role. He sang with bright firm tone, with a fabulous edge to the voice though he seemed to have only two settings full and mezzo, with little in the way of gradations. Thought it seems churlish to complain given that free and easy way he produced gallons of brilliant tone. Dimitri Platanias made a strong, and slightly scary Alfio (you could certainly imagine his Mafiosi friends). Elena Zilio was a wonderfully full voiced and vivid Mama Lucia, singing the role with great vibrancy and really bringing it alive. Martina Belli was a suitably sexy Lola.

(C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
Cavalleria Rusticana - (C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
In Pagliacci, Carmen Giannattasio was vivid, full-voiced Nedda, really bringing out the intensity of her dislike of her situation, especially in her aria. The duet with Dionysios Sourbis's Silvio was a musical and dramatic high-point with the two singers really making Leoncavallo's writing count. Dimitri Platanias was a strongly nasty Tonio, projecting the character's self-loathing whilst in the prologue (done as 'himself') he produced a stupendous performance singing with strength, subtlety and superbly supported phrases. Aleksandrs Antonenko really found form as Canio, and in the earlier parts of the opera gave a disturbing edge to the character which developed into the final breakdown. Here Antonenko sang with tireless brilliance and subtlety to create a coruscating depiction of a man breaking down completely. Benjamin Hulett gave a fine performance of Beppe and shaped his serenade with a lovely grace, shame we could not see all of it.

The Royal Opera Chorus played a big role in both operas, creating a real sense of character in the village. There was little of the staginess that this can sometimes bring, and instead there really were moments when you felt this was an Italian realist film. They combined this with some great, firm tone and superbly vivid singing.

The Royal Opera Orchestra were also on form, from the very opening notes of the prelude to Cavalleria Rusticana they created something powerful yet subtle. Antonio Pappano has only recently started to conduct more Italian opera at Covent Garden, and here he showed us what he is capable of, making the music seem fresh and beautifully shaped, letting the melodies flow without it coming over as a hackneyed barn-stormer of an evening.

There was an interestingly traditional edge to Damiano Michieletto's take on Cav and Pag and whilst I could not see the point of explicitly linking the two operas, the performances the he, Pappano and the cast achieved were so strong that this became an evening of real music drama.

(Click on any of the images to see a large scale version of them)

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1 comment:

  1. A review of AA's Met performance as Otello said "his signing is wildly inconsistent, with a hard unromantic timbre and an unreliable sense of pitch". That accurately nails how he sang in Cav and Pag, albeit I am not sure his sense of pitch was unreliable ; in Cav it was non existent. It actually overshadowed all else unhappily.


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