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Friday, January 21, 2011

Opera Telecast Review: Pag Before Cav, from La Scala

"I'm gonna go build my own theme park! With blackjack! And hookers! In fact, forget the park!"
--Bender Bending Rodriguez

Daniel Harding on the podium
La Scala returned to Symphony Space on Thursday afternoon with a live broadcast of director Mario Martone's new double-bill production of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Mascagni's Cavelleria Rusticana. In an unusual decision, the live broadcast switched the verismo twin bill, leading off with Pagliacci.

Martone has set Pagliacci's troupe of players as modern urban gypsies, putting on their show out of the back of a broken down camper, parked under in a highway overpass patrolled by hookers. (What is it with directors who equate verismo with the oldest profession?) Picked out in ugly neon pink and green light this was a sleazy, sordid setting for the commedia dell'arte. And when Silvio (Mario Cassi) picked up a streetwalker while rollin' in his BMW, the director's unsubtle point was made.

The cast anchored by the superior Tonio of bass Ambrogio Maestri. He dominates from his opening "Si puo?" with a dark, rounded tone and a sarcastic leer. Unfortunately tenor José Cura'turns strident when he approaches forte, the voice spreading unattractively in the climactic phrases of "Vestia la giubba." He is not helped by the blunt soprano of Oksana Dyka as Nedda. She was unimpressive in her La Scala debut.

Leoncavallo's most famous opera blurs the line between actors, audience, and onstage spectators, creating a theatrical ambiguity at its climax that is this work's particular genius. Silvio is sitting in the front row of the orchestra when he gets knifed. But having a blood-drenched Canio say "La comeddia e finita" and exit up the main aisle of the La Scala house shattered that barrier completely.

Cavalleria had the opposite problem: an exceptional cast stuck in an unimaginative staging. Lucina D'Into was the chief attraction. Her large, powerful soprano voice copes well with Santuzza's histrionics and heroics, rising effortlessly over the lush orchestra and cutting through the big choral ensembles without sounding shrill or forced. She was ably matched by Salvatore Licitra's exceptional, amoral Turiddu who still somehow elicited sympathy before his death. Bass Claudio Sgura was a fine, dark Alfio--an easy winner in any knife fight.

What didn't work in this Cav was the director's idea of adding a brothel to the village (Alfio was a customer) during the opening scena. (The hookers strike again!) This took away from the lush, succulent phrasing under the baton of Daniel Harding, who led both operas with theatrical flair. Following the church processional, most of the action took place in front of the villagers, gathered in prayer under a giant crucifix. This dark, dull production ended on an empty stage, as if the director had finally run out of ideas.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.