Alagna and Kurzak make Met’s devastating “Pagliacci” a night to remember

Tue Jan 09, 2018 at 1:57 pm

Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Few evenings at the Metropolitan Opera are so bottom-heavy as the classic “Cav & Pag” double-bill. The company was famously the first to pair Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and the two have been just about inseparable since. In the last several runs of the double bill, there’s been a vast chasm between the two, raising doubts about whether the traditional union is really such a good idea.

That question hung over the premiere of this season’s revival Monday night. Some of that discrepancy is in the pieces themselves—Mascagni’s opera, for all the sumptuous beauty of its score, can’t match Pagliacci for taut dramatic power. But the David McVicar production of the two works, which premiered in 2015, only exacerbates the imbalance.

The Pagliacci is a stroke of brilliance, bright and vivid, and strikes just the right note in reminding the audience in key places of the central conceit: the blurring of the line between the play and the reality of the actors. The sparse, lugubrious Cavalleria, still fettered to Andrew George’s bizarrely sinuous choreography, seems to make an already slow-progressing opera take even longer.

Vocally, this was the most compelling Cavalleria at the Met since the production’s 2015 debut. Roberto Alagna, taking on both lead tenor roles in this run, was in fine voice Monday night—his sound is firm and focused, and there is still a forceful power to his singing, even though his top has lost some of its ring and he seemed to be saving his energy for Pagliacci.

George Gagnidze was an ideal Alfio, with the sort of meaty baritone that can bark out the teamster song without sacrificing tone. Rihab Chaieb was superb as Alfio’s dallying young bride Lola, showing an alluring smoke in her voice.

Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Santuzza was the star of the first half, showing urgent dramatic commitment paired with a rich, velvety cushion of a voice. Her pleading, emotional monologues were almost painful to watch. Jane Bunnell played Mamma Lucia with stern kindness and sang with soft warmth.

Nicola Luisotti had moments of brilliance in the pit, such as the gossamer textures of the Prelude and the gorgeous sighs of the intermezzo, but there was sloppiness in the ensemble throughout; he had particular trouble coordinating with the chorus.

The Pagliacci has been the stronger partner in every iteration of the McVicar production, but in the Monday showing it reached new heights. The cast, working under the revival stage director Louisa Miller, gave a taut, gripping rendition of the piece that ranks among the most emotionally devastating performances I have ever seen at the Met.

Alagna at times can fall into a kind of tragic stoicism that makes him come across flat in a big house; but when he’s truly invested in the drama, there are few actors so convincing on the operatic stage. From the moment he made his first entrance, a beaming impresario in a powder-blue suit, there was a lively energy about him that had been missing entirely before the intermission. “Vesti la giubba,” the desperate aria that closes the first act, was rich in pathos, conveying through its driving phrases the intense sorrow of a broken man.

Many facets combined to make Alagna’s vividly human take on the character difficult to watch. Violent, abusive, jealous, and drunk, he earned sympathy nonetheless: deeply flawed but also deeply wounded, his Canio is the perfect antihero, making us hate his actions even while we feel his grief almost as our own. As much as his overt acts of violence were terrifying, he found powerful moments in nuance, as well—his defiant “No, Pagliaccio non son” thrilled with a deep, roiling passion.

Aleksandra Kurzak and Alagna are partners offstage as well as on, and there is a clear, natural chemistry between them. Her Nedda, though, is a striking creation all its own, a remarkably sensual reading of a role that is often played too quietly. She twirls around, dances with feather fans, and strikes poses on the hood of the company truck in the opening scene as though she’s the traveling troupe’s pinup model.

“Stridono lassu” found her dancing about the set, reveling in her youth and nimbly navigating the birdsong figures with her penetrating soprano; her sultry reading of the scene before could have come right out of Carmen. Crucial to her success in the role is the relish with which she throws herself into the play of the second act, as though she’d been born to be a vaudeville star, rather than a singer. Her total engagement in the clowning makes the stark juxtaposition of comedic and tragic elements land with shattering force.

Gagnidze was less convincing as Tonio than as Alfio, which was a disappointment; he has excelled in this role before, but in the Prologue he seemed distracted by the antics of the vaudeville actors. Alessio Arduini was less than an ideal fit as Silvio: he’s listed as a baritone, yet there’s a stocky bass quality about his voice, and his lack of vocal flexibility meant he missed the crucial lyricism of his duet with Nedda. Andrew Bidlack, meanwhile, was an excellent Beppe, singing his cavatina “O, Colombina” with light tone and flowing phrases.

Luisotti and the Met Orchestra were far more effective in Pagliacci, playing with tight ensemble and bringing out all the vivid flourishes of the score. The Intermezzo was gorgeously realized, its motivic elements imbued with such deep meaning that they had almost as much emotional force as the vocal music they referenced.

This Pagliacci is easily one of the most rewarding items in the Met’s regular repertory, a thrilling production that brings out the inherent tensions of the piece to tremendous emotional effect. Given the explicit echoes between the two stagings, it is unlikely that a happy separation between the two pieces will be achieved until a new production comes along. But until then this realization of Leoncavallo’s masterpiece would be worth the price of admission even if presented alone.

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci run through February 1 at the Metropolitan Opera. Eva-Maria Westbroek takes over the role of Santuzza beginning January 20, and Željko Lučić sings Alfio on January 29 and February 1.

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