A great night for tenors in Met’s uneven “Cav and Pag”

Fri Jan 22, 2016 at 2:53 pm
Roberto Alagna and Barbara Frittoli in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Roberto Alagna and Barbara Frittoli in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

A second run of an operatic production, particularly one that was coldly received at its first appearance, will occasionally receive a tweak or two should it see a revival. A costume change, a re-blocked encounter, even the addition or excision of choreography can help moments that flopped the first time around and better communicate the director’s vision.

Not so with the Metropolitan Opera’s latest revival of the “Cav and Pag” double-bill, which opened Thursday night: stage director Louisa Muller has moved hardly a hair in David McVicar’s year-old staging.

So much the better for Pagliacci, but Cavalleria Rusticana still offers precious little to keep the audience’s attention: the entire piece takes place in a nondescript brickwork enclosure peopled with black-clad townsfolk, as though somebody rented out a Grimaldi’s for a funeral reception. Andrew George’s bizarre dance choreography, seemingly oblivious to the music it is supposed to accompany, has somehow been allowed to survive.

A major improvement, though, has come in the form of Yonghoon Lee as the tragic philanderer Turiddu. The Korean tenor has progressed significantly in just a few years, and Thursday was his best New York work yet, potentially a significant breakthrough.

It was announced that Lee was under the weather, but not for a moment did he seem at all afflicted. Lee sang with enormous power, showing a gloriously clear tone and caramel timbre. His top notes, which have been occasionally questionable in previous appearances, rang brilliantly. The tenor’s dramatic portrayal was not particularly nuanced, but his single-minded focus lent his acting a sense of unshakable commitment to match the vital energy of his singing.

Ambrogio Maestri is Alfio for this run, a peculiar choice in a way but one that paid off: there is certainly no question that he is vocally suited to the part, possessing a thundering voice and buffo agility. It is interesting, though to see him in so dark a role—to Met audiences, Maestri has been known mostly as Falstaff and Dulcamara. Yet the same massive presence that makes him ideal for those jovial figures also allows him here to craft a far more imposing villain. Ginger Costa-Jackson, returning as Alfio’s wayward young wife Lola, is excellent again, achieving a dark allure with her smoky voice and sultry bearing.

Not so fortunate was Violeta Urmana, Thursday’s Santuzza. Her voice sounds weary, marked by a slow, wide vibrato, and glaring stridency in her upper register. It doesn’t help that McVicar’s staging is not particularly kind to Santuzza, asking her to sulk on a chair in the corner through everyone else’s scenes as some kind of silent observer.

Under Fabio Luisi’s direction the Met orchestra positively beamed, giving a silken, breathing account of the celebrated interlude. Even better, though, was the prelude, firmly articulated yet gently caressed. The chorus, called upon for significant work in Cavalleria, gleamed as always, especially in the ravishing Easter Hymn.

But for all the musical value of the performance, there’s no escaping the oppressive bleakness of the McVicar staging. Rather than an invigorating warm-up—to say nothing of a rewarding experience on its own merits—this Cavalleria still feels like an ordeal that must be endured before the main event.

Pagliacci, thank goodness, is worth the wait. A contrast in every way to its surly partner, this is a thoroughly charming production, lively and grinning, but growing steadily more tense from its very first bars. Roberto Alagna provides the star power necessary to carry the piece, and the cast’s single returning member is outstanding. George Gagnidze presents a Tonio both pathetic and oddly sympathetic, his voice warm and oaky. Beautiful, subtle phrasing made his Prologue emotionally trying, in spite of the sight gags that McVicar employs to define the opera’s comic elements.

The rest of the supporting characters were somewhat uneven. Barbara Frittoli has shown signs of vocal distress recently, and Thursday unfortunately did not show much improvement—hearing her over the orchestra was difficult, and she had very little body at the top of her range, muscle at the bottom, or warmth in the middle. “Stridono lassù” was a struggle, though she fared better in her duet with Silvio, where her sound softened and she could rely on the strength of her moving dramatic portrayal. Her partner in that duet, Alexey Lavrov, showed more gravel in his tone than usual.

As in the Cavalleria, the orchestra was beautifully colored and Luisi gave an imaginative and compelling reading. But the teamwork of Luisi and the company was marred by a few conspicuous gaffes—most notably at the opening of “No, Pagliacco non son,” where conductor and tenor wrestled over the tempo for a good twenty bars before Luisi finally relented. Glaring down at his adversary as he cried “O maledetta!” Alagna removed his hat as though he might hurl it into the pit, ultimately throwing it at poor Nedda instead.

The tempo for which Alagna fought so hard turned out to be a fairly morose one, but the closing scene was heart-racing nonetheless. The last five minutes of this score, in which the building tension of the piece finally comes to a head is among the most thrilling in the repertoire, and the tenor maintained a furious energy even as the tempo sagged. The same was true of much of Alagna’s singing, in fact—“Vesti la giubba” was taken at a similarly stately pace, but the intensity he was able to maintain in his voice, combined with his unhinged dramatic presence, made this rendition superb.

It is hardly surprising that Alagna’s Canio should be an excellent one; this is one of the world’s great tenors singing one of the great tenor roles, and one with which he is very familiar. Hopefully, Alagna and Luisi will reach some understanding before the second showing. This tightly wound opera requires a tight performance to achieve its maximum effect.

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci run through February 26 at the Metropolitan Opera. Rodion Pogossov takes over the role of Silvio beginning February 10, and Liudmyla Monastryska sings Santuzza beginning February 13. Ricardo Tamura will appear as Turiddu on February 23 and 26. metopera.org



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