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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Opera Review: Villains and Vaudevillians

A new Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci bows at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Álvarez y Álvarez: tenor Marcelo Álvarez is Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana (left, background)
and Canio in Pagliacci (right, insert) in the Met's new David McVicar production.
Photos by Cory Weaver © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera. Photo insertion and alteration by the author. 

At the start of David McVicar's new twin-bill production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, (which premiered last night at the Metropolitan Opera) the curtain rises well before the opera starts, to reveal an enormous circular acting surface, surrounded by chairs. A dim, religious atmosphere pervades the stage, aided by the dark lighting design and the minimal set: huge, vaulted brick walls looming in the darkness. Until the orchestra starts, it's not clear if the first half of this famous pairing (the operas were first staged together at the Met in 1893) is being played, or if it's another new Met production of Parsifal.

Mr. McVicar imagines Easter morning in a Sicilian village as some sort of pagan human sacrifice , with Turiddu (Marcelo Álvarez) as the intended victim. Even the table that rises out of the stage (to suggest Mamma Lucia's village taverna) feels like some sort of altar, piled with gifts, bottles of wine, and occasionally members of the superb Metropolitan Opera chorus. In both operas, the chorus was indeed the living, beating heart of this little town. They were superbly prepared by Donald Palumbo and accompanied by the eloquent Met orchestra,at their post-Wagnerian best under the baton of Fabio Luisi.

Singing the leading part in both operas, Mr. Álvarez was the most interesting person in this village. Bright of tone, brash and vibrant, he sings a veteran with close attention to the text. Every gesture, every vocal inflection has meaning, even when Turiddu lets the wine overcome him and picks a fight. He was more than a village rake--he's a primal ball of energy whose downfall comes with terrifying speed.

As Alfio, (his opponent) baritone George Gagnidze was perfectly cast, hulking, scary and not the guy you want to cross. Less interesting: the pallid Santuzza of Eva-Maria Westbroek. Dry of tone in her big duet with Mr. Álvarez, she spent most of the opera sitting outside the "village circle," on her own chair off downstage right. This was excommunication portrayed as a child's time-out. In her big aria and duets with Mr. Gagnidze and Mr. Álvarez, more fire and emotional involvement was needed.


Pagliacci couldn't be more different. Against a starry show curtain, Mr. Gagnidze delivers the famous "Sio puo" prologue with comic timing, style and shtick, helped by three Stooge-like mechanicals who keep futzing with his long microphone cord. his Vegas-style jacket did make one think of a certain production of Rigoletto.

The curtain rises to reveal the same set as Cav. The looming walls are still there, but the town is now lit like a sunny day in Sicily. A tavern (presumably Mamma Lucia sold hers to new ownership) is now open for business in the background and a big truck: the traveling theater of the players, coughing and backfiring in the piazza. Electricity has arrived in this village (there is a big power pole downstage) and the strange rituals of Cavalleria seemed like a distant and disturbing memory.

On top of this decrepit vehicle were the pagliacci, led by Mr. Álvarez' Canio, Mr. Gagnidze's Tonio and Patricia Racette as Canio's wayward wife Nedda.  The tenor had the stamina necessary in taking on both tenor roles back-to-back, although Mr. McVicar's conceit of turning this actor into a whiskey-swilling drunk was a little too pat. He sang the famous "Vestia la giubba" in front of the curtain, pouring all his remaining vocal resources into that crucial aria and carrying it off with style, poetry, power and a welcome squillo. Mr. Gagnidze's Tonio/Taddeo was brutish, singing with great depth and resource even in thug-like scene where he attempts to assault Ms. Racette. Iago-like, he engineered the disastrous denouement, only to be upset at the bloodshed that he brought forth.

Ms. Racette was a gem. She played both sides of Nedda, the passionate woman in love and the beaten-down sexually harassed professional actress in a performance that left everything on the stage. This was an entertaining and risk-taking performance, complete with an almost unrecognizable turn in a clown suit which transformed quickly into a suggestive and glittery Colombina outfit. The bird-like upper coloratura of "Stridono lassù" was a reach for her, but the notes were present. In her more comfortable lower range, Ms. Racette gave a firm and committed performance with more than a flash of the magic that this singer has brought to the Met so many times. Her duet with the promising baritone Lucas Meachem (as Silvio, this opera's hapless equivalent to Turiddu) was full of yearning and need, supported by her dark middle register.

The Met programme for this evening lists an Emil Wolk as the show's "vaudeville consultant." Mr. Wolk's work was evident in helping to produce the play-within-a-play as an engaging slapstick farce. Three onstage tumbles (Marty Keiser, Andy Sapora and Joshua Wynter) were silent contributors to the farce, exchanging blows with whipped cream, dumping a bowl of (hopefully cold) pasta on Taddeo's head and providing physical comedy with Ms. Racette. As Beppe/Arlecchino, tenor Andrew Stenson brought lovely tone to his serenade, delivered under a very Shakespearean moon. All this distraction ratcheted up the tension as the tragedy bubbled and brewed.

The finale came with terrifying swiftness. Wielding his whiskey bottle, Mr. Álvarez played Canio as completely drunk, but brutish and nasty. He broke down and attacked Nedda before the audience and murdered Silvio. Horror-struck, he held the dead Nedda in his arms as Mr. Gagnidze blurted the last line "La commedia è finita!" Directors just love to mess with things, don't they?

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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.