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Opera Review

Met’s new verismo double bill offers a static “Cav” and memorable “Pag”

April 15, 2015 at 5:14 pm
Marcelo Alvarez and Patricia Racette in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." Photo: Cory Weaver

Marcelo Alvarez and Patricia Racette in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” Photo: Cory Weaver

The “day-night double-header” is a beloved oddity of the baseball season. In opera, we hope the difference won’t be as stark as that, but to judge by the Metropolitan Opera’s current season, it seems any pairing of two pieces will inevitably exhibit a see-saw effect.

Tuesday night’s opener of the classic “Cav and Pag” double-bill felt impossibly lopsided, even compared to this season’s earlier, uneven pairing of Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle.

The tradition of presenting Pietro Mascagni’s one-act Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci together is a venerable one, especially at the Met, where the practice was inaugurated. But that alone is not enough to justify the duo. David McVicar’s take on Pagliacci sparkles, but his Cavalleria seems so disinterested that the two pieces hardly complement each other, as they are dragged onstage together once more simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.

To call this Cavalleria a “disaster” would be inaccurate, as that word suggests far more action than could be seen on the Met’s stage Tuesday night. As viewers enter the auditorium, the lights are already up on a circle of wooden chairs on a carousel stage inside a dimly lit brick warehouse, an image that screams “concept production.” If only.

Something tasteless, something overly clever, something to object to, would have been welcome. Instead, the entire piece exists in stasis, barely creeping along from one scene to the next. The choristers, morosely clad in three-piece black suits or skirts and shawls, spend the entire hour rearranging the chairs on the lazy susan while Santuzza lurks sociopathically in the corner. The Easter effigies are paraded in through a blackness darker than the auditorium. A handful of company dancers engage in some gangly, imprecise, and inscrutable choreography during Alfio’s entrance song. Alfio himself calls to mind the Scarpia of Luc Bondy’s much-reviled Tosca, as once again we see George Gagnidze leering around for a bare bottom to smack (this time, he’s disappointed).

It does not help that the principals seem less than ideally suited to their roles. As Turiddu, Marcelo Álvarez has the dramatic focus and all the notes, but one couldn’t help wanting his opening paean to waft in from the wings with a little less effort. Gagnidze’s earthy baritone, one of the most colorful voices in the Met’s regular lineup, is not quite nimble enough to toss off Alfio’s brisk introductory number (Željko Lučić was originally cast in this role, but withdrew due to illness). Eva-Maria Westbroek sounded less secure than usual as Santuzza, struggling to keep her tone straight in the top half of her voice. Only Ginger Costa-Jackson shines among the singers in Cavalleria, her crisp, dusky soprano and sultry charisma capturing the very essence of Lola.

Even leaving aside the particular failings of this staging, Cavalleria is not exactly flattered by the traditional pairing. Mascagni’s score is full of imaginative and rewarding material, from which Fabio Luisi spun spider-silk, fine but tough. The intermezzo in particular is a perfect jewel. But as a seminal work of the verismo movement, Cavalleria is perhaps dramatically too “vero,” its scenario and arc (violence aside) seeming ordinary to the point of tedium, a “mid-afternoon’s domestic squabble” compared to the bizarre but grippingly human conceit of Leoncavallo’s much tighter masterpiece.

The gulf between the two only seems wider in McVicar’s realization: his Pagliacci is ten times as lively as his Cavalleria is surly. Even the curtain is pitch-perfect: a tacky, glitter-encrusted, blue velvet number with gold trim and cut-out stars, it emphasizes the fragility of the dramatic façade separating the two worlds of the opera and capitalizes on the self-awareness that is so central to the framing of Leoncavallo’s libretto.

Tonio steps out in front as a glitzy emcee, enduring a host of slapstick pranks; but when the comedy needs to disappear, it evaporates, leaving Gagnidze the space necessary to craft an aching, personal account of the lyrical and wide-ranging prologue. When the curtain finally rises, the era has been advanced several decades, to the 1930s or 1940s: the same set that served as Cavalleria’s gloomy public square is suddenly a lively, verandaed piazza, and the temporary home of a broken-down side-show truck.

One of the production’s greatest strengths is its deft translation of the commedia dell’arte tradition to American vaudeville (with the help of “vaudeville consultant” Emil Wolk), a change that fits perfectly with McVicar’s updated setting. The troupe’s campy show in Act II is as entertaining for the viewers in the house as for the “audience” on stage, making its sudden combustion all the more shocking. In the main narrative, too, McVicar draws superior performances from all of his actors, coaching them to full, honest engagement with each other. Not a single interaction seems blocked or scripted.

Of course, this would not be an excellent Pagliacci without excellent singing, and the leading couple rise to the challenge. Álvarez’s robust tenor conveys all the forceful passion of Canio with a ringing top that  allows him to give a nuanced, wrenching account of “Vesti la giubba.” His unfamiliar approach to “No, Pagliaccio non son” in the final scene, maintaining control until the last instant, made the crucial act of violence absolutely shattering—you don’t believe that he’s actually going to do it, and when the moment comes, its effect is traumatic.

Patricia Racette as the doomed Nedda gives one of her finest performances in recent memory, finding focus and honey in her middle range. She wholly inhabits her role, playing the wanton scamp “Colombina” with aplomb, but earnestly yearning to be free of her life with Canio. Even in the midst of her infidelity, she commands sympathy in her duet with Lucas Meachem, who brought a warm, smooth baritone to the role of Silvio.

As with the Mascagni, Fabio Luisi shaped his reading of Leoncavallo’s score with keen theatrical awareness, leading a bubbling, joyous opening chorus and attacking the limping figures of the commedia scene with harrowing ferocity. The musicians and directors together delivered on Tuesday a thrilling rendition of a beloved classic. The jeers that greeted the production team at the final curtain seemed to focus on the evening’s messy first act, but McVicar and company have given the Met a superb Pagliacci; it just needs a better dance partner.

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci run through May 8 at the Metropolitan Opera. The April 25 matinee will be broadcast live in HD. metopera.org.

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