The Metropolitan Opera HD Live series is an interesting if not consistent series and a more accessible way of seeing opera from the Met while feeling you're actually there. This double bill production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci(two personal favourites since singing in the chorus for them seven years ago) was much anticipated and while it isn't entirely successful it still has so much to recommend, ranking somewhere in the middle of the 9th season of the series.
Metropolitan Opera's production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci is uneven, with it being a case of two halves. Of those two halves Pagliacci fared the stronger of the two, both are musically top notch but Pagliacci appealed more visually and the staging was more interesting. To be honest, Cavalleria, while a long way from a disaster, was a disappointment. For an opera with a story set in the Spring time, Met's Cavalleria was incredibly gloomy with some scenes being lit far too darkly, especially in the chorus scenes. The rotating stage, while it wasn't hard to figure why it was used, didn't always feel necessary and felt overused, while the staging and character interactions are more compelling in Pagliacci(personally have always found Pagliacci to have the stronger story in the first place though). The staging in Cavalleria has its fine moments, the Easter Hymn is moving, the interaction between Santuzza and Turridu has its intensity and Mama Quel Vino Genoroso is moving, but too many times also it is very static. The chorus don't have an awful lot to do, Santuzza and Mama Lucia's chemistry has been more poignant in other productions of the opera and not an awful lot is done making the characters interesting, aside from the chorus' shunning of Santuzza which was done very believably.
Pagliacci however fares far better. Could have done without the slapstick pranks in the prologue perhaps, in order to allow the prologue to speak for itself, but they did work within the concept at least. The production values, with the idea of the production being set in the same village fifty years later, are more appealing, with very colourful rustic sets. The mix of vaudeville and commedia dell arte was brilliantly done, with a lot of the action in the play scene being hilarious, and director David McVicar does a great job with the characterisation and the opera's mood. The play scene is hugely entertaining while later turning into ferocious intensity, the first village scene rouses, Tonio, Nedda and Canio are complex characters here and interaction has the perfect mixture of fun, poignancy and intensity. Pretty much everything that Cavalleria should have been but wasn't quite.
Musically, Met's Cavalleria and Pagliacci are both top-notch. The orchestral playing has much depth and beauty, giving both operas their emotional power whether tense or intimate. The chorus sound superb and while they don't have their most inspired stage direction in Cavalleria their individuality shines in Pagliacci, and they couldn't have been better supported by Fabio Luisi. Luisi really allows the drama of both operas to resonate, especially in Cavalleria where the most ravishing passages are so beautifully characterised musically here to the point of heart-break, but the vibrant energy he gives too ensures that the drama also has a sense of pace. In this regard he is particularly good in Pagliacci where the music is full of the stuff already but in no way does he lose the energy or mood for Cavalleria.
Both productions feature very talented singers, and the cast for both do fine. I liked Eva-Maria Westbroek more than most did as Santuzza. She has a large rich voice that in no way sounds unpleasant despite her vibrato getting looser the further up the voice it goes(not to the extent that you can't figure out which note she's singing thank goodness), and her interpretation is nuanced and impassioned(just right for Santuzza) in this performance. Marcelo Alvarez, taking on the first of his daunting dual role, is a dashing Turridu, with a touch of arrogance, his indifference to Santuzza's imploring being well tuned, and he sings beautifully with lovely lyric tone, smooth phrasing and clear diction. Alfio is a rather stock character here, but George Gagnidze, taking over from an ill Zeljko Lucic, sings with earthy resonance and acts with dramatic engagement. Ginger Costa-Jackson is a sensual and rich-voiced Lola, and Jane Bunnell is affecting as Mama Lucia.
With Pagliacci, Alvarez also sings Canio. I did have reservations as to whether the role would be too heavy for him and whether his acting would be strong enough, but at no point(not even in Non Pagliaccio Non Son) did he sound taxed, the tone throughout is very pleasing and ardent, and while he on the most part is not the best of actors he brings brutish intensity and poignant emotion to Canio. Patricia Racette's Nedda is very layered in characterisation, she's affectingly vulnerable while also showing a cruel streak with Tonio and deliciously funny comic timing, and while she is a little shrill and wobbly at times some of the singing is really lovely and there's no faulting the musicianship and such. Gagnidze is advantaged by that Tonio is a far more interesting character than Alfio(both in the production and in the operas in general), while he was good as Alfio he's superb as Tonio. He allows one to feel amusement, repulsion and sometimes pity for him, and his voice is more resonant and powerful than it had been before, he manages the top A flat quite well. Lucas Meacham's Silvio is sympathetic and touching, every bit the caring lover, and he sings very warmly. Andrew Stensen is a boyish and amusing Beppe. The three clowns are funny and don't feel out of place, while they weren't necessary in the Prologue they were used perfectly in the play scene.
Overall, a good double bill production on the whole, with a little disappointing Cavalleria and a triumphant Pagliacci. 7/10 Bethany Cox
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