Since soon after they first appeared in the early 1890s, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci have been performed together as a double bill, united by their tales of fatal jealousy among the Italian peasantry. To modern sensibilities, they are often verging on melodrama. However, Opera Australia’s new Cav and Pag, as the pairing is popularly known, must surely be one of the most ingenious and moving interpretations in years, enhanced by uniformly excellent performances.
In Cavalleria Rusticana, Santuzza suffers through the double shame of being a “fallen woman” spurned by her lover, Turiddu, who has taken up with Lola. Turiddu’s mother, Lucia, grieves about the unfolding disaster, which reaches a climax as Lola’s husband, Alfio, seeks revenge.
Pagliacci sees life and theatre merge as tensions boil over in a small travelling theatre troupe. Canio becomes suspicious of his wife, Nedda, who is pursued by fellow thespian Tonio as she contemplates escape with a local man, Silvio. After being rejected, Tonio seeks revenge by telling Canio of his wife’s infidelity, and their frivolous play becomes dangerously real.
Director Damiano Michieletto cleverly links the two stories, in this co-production with three European companies, including London’s Royal Opera House. Not unusually, the chorus appeared as the same villagers in both operas, but there was further continuity in having them gather around posters and flyers promoting Pag’s theatre troupe early in Cav. Even more powerfully, the intermezzo in each became narrative bridges: Nedda and Silvio’s romance was sympathetically established before interval; an epilogue to the fraught relationship between Santuzza and Lucia was offered after it.
Adding to the clear sense that the action takes place in the same village, with only a short time between, were Paolo Fantin’s rotating sets. Cav was centred on a bakery and piazza, Pag on a humble hall and dressing room, but their designs are unified by prosaic dirty and dilapidated modern architecture, and other quotidian signs of working-class life including weeds and fluorescent strip lights.
The production notes place the action in the 1980s, but Carla Teti’s costumes evoke the timeless nature of hardscrabble Italian village life. Among generally drab cardigans and knitted vests, simple patterned dresses and plain shirts, suggesting anything from the 50s to today, some modest theatrical finery stood out, as did a leather jacket, suit or pretty, figure-hugging dress on a few principals.
Not that they really needed attention drawn to them, as each principal delivered a satisfying, even superb performance. Diego Torre was very much in the latter category, doing rare double duty as both Turiddu and Canio. He conveyed a strong sense of these characters’ violence and machismo, as well as their emotional fragility, which is most evident in Canio. This tragic figure’s famous aria, Vesti la giubba, was opening night’s vocal highlight: Torre’s rich tenor, which never showed strain in the upper register, was shot through with the kind of emotion that makes bottom lips tremble, especially as the final phrase became a sob into the descending gloom.
José Carbó was the only other artist playing two distinct characters, and they were interpreted with unusual nuance: slightly smug travelling salesman Alfio (whose arrival continues this Opera Australia season’s adorable fascination with automobiles), and Tonio, a man rejected one too many times. Carbó’s warm, confident baritone was like honey to the ear, especially during the Pag prologue aria.
Although her character tends to be whiny, soprano Dragana Radakovic managed to present a sad, deeply troubled Santuzza we could sympathise with, both dramatically and with her strong, dynamic voice. Pag’s leading lady, Anna Princeva, was also outstanding. With a soprano of considerable range and beauty, she fully committed to Nedda’s emotional light and shade, from fear and frustrated passion in real life to seduction and flirtation in the imaginary.
The cast could really not be faulted, from Dominica Matthews’ stern, grief-stricken Lucia to Sian Pendry’s alluring Lola, John Longmuir’s charming turn in the small Pag role of Beppe, and Samuel Dundas as Silvio. This is usually a modest part, but thanks to Michieletto’s inspired narrative linking, he is a prominent, sympathetic figure from the get-go as Cav’s romantic baker. Dundas makes the most of his character’s expanded role, and reveals a fine baritone in his impassioned duet with Princeva.
The Opera Australia Chorus was vocally assured as always, but also showed the depth of their performing skills in various vignettes that reveal the village’s simmering tensions (another Michieletto masterstroke). The Children’s Chorus was also sweet in voice and manner. Under the baton of Andrea Licata, Orchestra Victoria was equal parts passion and restraint, the beauty of their performance only slightly marred by some wobbly brass.
With Cav and Pag’s inherent melodrama, and this production taking their traditional verismo to an aesthetically unattractive, even bloody extreme, this could have been a lowlight of the 2017 opera calendar. Instead, with its excellent cast, insight and ingenuity (including two hallucinatory visions; Pag’s was a stunning coup de théâtre), it’s sure to endure as a memorable highlight.