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Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci

Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (The Players) are today Italian opera’s most famous double act, but they were written independently. Cavalleria rusticana came first, its hugely successful premiere in 1890 doubtless an influence on Leoncavallo. His Pagliacci in 1892 was another triumph. The two works, each undeniable masterpieces of the verismo tradition of realism, share dramatic concision, melodic richness and an obsession with violent jealousy.

Damiano Michieletto’s production was an Olivier-Award-winning hit when first presented in 2015. He sets both operas within the same village, allowing characters from one piece to reappear in the other and offering theatrical realism within visuals that are modern and yet timeless. The production was widely praised at its premiere, and summarized by the Financial Times as ‘a gripping evening all round’.

Michieletto’s approach to this double helping of verismo misery is is to create a very carefully detailed naturalism. He relocates the two operas in small-town southern Italy today, with the central revolve of Paolo Fantin’s set revealing the interior and exterior of a bakery for Cavalleria Rusticana, and the hall and backstage of the community centre where the performance is taking place for Pagliacci. The intermezzos of both works provide opportunities to integrate the action further: Nedda (Carmen Giannattasio) and Silvio (Dionysios Sourbis) are seen meeting for the first time during the interlude of Cavalleria Rusticana, while the midpoint of the second opera provides the opportunity for a reminder of Eva-Maria Westbroek’s still-grieving Santuzza, comforted by a priest and then being reconciled with Turiddu’s mother, Mamma Lucia (Elena Zilio).

But those contrivances work effectively, and crucially never distract from the dramas they punctuate. The stories are generally straightforwardly presented – the dramatic shape of the Mascagni at least is hardly sophisticated anyway, though in Pagliacci, Michieletto does blur the lines between the play within the play and the lives of the protagonists, between what is happening backstage and what is being played out in front of the village audience.

With the carefully directed chorus fleshing out the action in both operas with busy detail, and Antonio Pappano extracting some ravishing sounds from the Opera House Orchestra alongside some blood-and-thunder climaxes, the framework for the playing out of the tawdry tragedies is perfectly defined. Aleksandrs Antonenko sings both Turridu and Canio with apparently inexhaustible supplies of robust virile tone, though showing very little in the way of dynamic range, and Dimitri Platanias similarly doubles as Alfio and Tonio. Giannattasio makes something rather brittle out of Nedda, though, and only Westbroek of all the protagonists in both operas really seems to deal in real emotions; whether that’s a problem of the production or the operas themselves, though, is personal taste.

--The Guardian

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