Cavalleria rusticana – Opera in one act to a libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti & Guido Menasci after a story and play by Giovanni Verga [sung in Italian with English Met Titles by Francis Rizzo]
Pagliacci – Opera in a prologue and two acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in Italian with English Met Titles by Francis Rizzo]
Turiddu – Roberto Alagna
Santuzza – Waltraud Meier
Mamma Lucia – Jane Bunnell
Alfio – Alberto Mastromarino
Lola – Ginger Costa Jackson
Peasant Woman – Linda Mays
Tonio – Alberto Mastromarino
Canio – Roberto Alagna
Nedda – Nuccia Focile
Beppe – Tony Stevenson
Silvio – Christopher Maltman
Villagers – Timothy Breese Miller & Jeffrey Mosher
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Franco Zeffirelli – Production; Set & Costume Design
David Kneuss – Stage Director
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 19 March, 2009
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City
Since Franco Zeffirelli’s production of the double-bill of “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci” was introduced in 1970, these operas have been performed more than 220 times, and (including the current revival) in a total of seventeen seasons at the Met. They remain among the most popular works in the operatic repertoire; ‘Cav’ ranks tenth and ‘Pag’ ninth among the most frequently performed operas in the Met’s history.
Roberto Alagna was featured in both operas, singing his first Turiddu anywhere, as well as his first Met Canio. The evening’s other star was Waltraud Meier, who gave a superb performance as Santuzza. Alberto Mastromarino made an excellent Met debut, singing both Alfio in ‘Cav’ and Tonio in ‘Pag’. Nuccia Focile and Christopher Maltman were Nedda and Silvio, the ill-fated lovers in “Pagliacci”. The conductor was Pietro Rizzo, making his Met debut.
A production of verismo opera that is true to that tradition requires much more in the way of realistic detail than of original concept, and that is just what Zeffirelli provides – especially in his set for “Cavalleria rusticana”, an affectionate depiction of a Sicilian village. A huge staircase leads up to a church across the piazza from Mamma Lucia’s tavern, above which are apartment dwellings with balconies on which the villagers beat rugs, air bedding and visit an outhouse. The costumes, also designed by Zeffirelli, range from black widow’s weeds to the outlandishly garish Easter dress of Lola, Alfio’s trophy-wife (and Turiddu’s former and present lover). The Easter procession is elaborate and spectacular, from the child dressed as an angel who leads it, to the bearers of a statue of the Madonna who are the last to ascend to the church. Unfortunately, the set is showing its age, with the backdrop of sky visibly sagging and the stone alongside the stairs proving surprisingly moveable.
For “Pagliacci”, Zeffirelli paints a realistic landscape rather than an urban portrait, placing the action away from the townspeople’s Calabrian village and into an open area nearby. A single gnarled tree provides no shade to offer relief from the almost tangible August heat baking the barren ground and outcroppings of rock. As day turned to dusk, the sky glowed with reds and oranges from the setting sun. The townspeople were costumed in holiday dress for a religious feast, and the commedia dell’arte players wore casual clothing when not in costume for their troupe’s performance.
The plots of both operas are driven by the emotion of jealousy, which in “Cavalleria rusticana”, undergoes a sort of chain reaction. Lola, who married the wealthy carter Alfio rather than waiting for her lover Turiddu to return from the army, becomes jealous of Turiddu’s new love, Santuzza, and pursues him again, successfully winning him away from the heartbroken Santuzza, whose own jealousy causes her to thoughtlessly disclose Lola’s infidelity to Alfio, who, in a jealous rage, challenges Turiddu and kills him (off-stage) in a knife fight at the opera’s end.
In the main plot line of “Pagliacci”, Canio’s overwhelming and uncontrollable jealousy at Nedda’s infidelity drives him to kill her and her lover, Silvio. But there are other aspects of jealousy as well. Nedda’s rejection of Tonio’s advances causes the clown to seek retribution against her and her as yet unidentified lover. Jealousy is also the main plot device in the commedia dell’arte performance that is the centrepiece of Act Two, as Pagliaccio (played by Canio) suspects – correctly – that Colombina (Nedda) has a lover – Arlecchino (the clown Beppe). It is a case of art imitating life, both within the opera and in its creation in response to a newspaper account of an actual incident that had come to Leoncavallo’s attention.
Singing the dual roles of Turiddu and Canio is a major undertaking, but Roberto Alagna was well up to the task, throwing himself into both roles with great vigour. His was the first and last voice heard in the course of the evening, from his off-stage aria (‘O Lola, bianca come fior di spino’) that began “Cavalleria Rusticana”, to his cry of ‘La commedia è finita’ that brought the curtain down at the end of “Pagliacci”, and there was a great deal of singing – and acting – in between. Alagna’s voice ranged from sweetly ardent in his praise of Lola’s beauty to pathetic in his farewell to Mamma Lucia and later in ‘Vesti la giubba’ at the end of Act One of “Pagliacci”, which was delivered with tonal beauty as well as powerful emotional impact. He projected a festive air in Turiddu’s drinking song, ‘Viva il vino’, and also in Canio’s ‘Un grande spettacolo’ drumming up business for the troupe’s performance that evening, but with an anger that was just below the surface (‘Un tal gioco’).
Waltraud Meier’s performance as Santuzza was a vocal and dramatic triumph, demonstrating that she is as much at home in the dramatic soprano repertory as in the Wagnerian mezzo roles such as Kundry, Ortrud and Fricka with which she achieved her first international successes. Meier evoked sympathy for Santuzza’s desperate plight as she poured her heart out to Mamma Lucia, revealing that she has been excommunicated from the Church for her illicit affair with Turiddu and was pregnant with his child, yet has lost him to Lola (‘Voi lo sapete’), and when, in a duet with Turiddu (‘Tu qui Santuzza?’), he refused her entreaties to return to her and end his affair with Lola.
Alberto Mastromarino’s Met debut was moved up by an hour or so when he substituted as Alfio for the ailing Charles Taylor before making his scheduled appearance as Tonio, which was to have been his debut role. He was excellent in both parts, singing with a rich and resonant baritone voice. He made a convincing Alfio, at first happily boasting of his horse and his wife (‘Il cavallo scalpita’) but later venting jealous rage toward Turiddu. As Tonio, his rendition of the “Pagliacci” prologue (‘Si può?’) was excellent, and in the course of that opera he gradually revealed the depth of his character’s growing bitterness.
Nuccia Focile, in her first Nedda at the Met, was effective in conveying her character’s shifting moods as the plot evolved. In turn, she yearned for freedom, rebuffed Tonio’s unwelcome advances, agreed to elope with Silvio, refused to reveal Silvio’s identity, tried to cover for Canio’s departures from their comedic script, and finally died by his hand.
Christopher Maltman, also in his Met role debut, was a charismatic Silvio. His strong, rich baritone voice was effusive with passion in his lyrical love duet with Nedda – the opera’s only romantic episode. Maltman’s memorable performance made the most of this relatively brief but important role.
There also were fine contributions from the supporting cast, including Met veterans Jane Bunnell as Mamma Lucia, and Tony Stevenson as Beppe, who gave an excellent account of Arlecchino’s serenade to Colombina. Ginger Costa Jackson portrayed effectively the heartless and self-centred Lola.
Pietro Rizzo drew a sensitive performance from the Met Orchestra. His unhurried approach to both operas emphasised the music’s lyrical qualities, particularly in the orchestral intermezzos, but at times his tempos seemed a bit too slow.