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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci

The verismo twin bill returns in darkness and light.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Roberto Alagna puts the greasepaint on as the killer clown in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera revives  its 2015 staging of "Cav/Pag", the most famous double bill in opera. Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana is a story of adultery, revenge and murder (in that order) in a rural Sicilian village. Pagliacci, also  a story of adultery, revenge and murder is centered around a company of traveling players. Both operas end in bloodshed and both star tenor Roberto Alagna in the leading roles.

What is "Cav/Pag"?
These are two operas with similar plots and similar themes, written by two composers who were very good friends. Written in 1890, Pietro  Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana was the cannon shot that launched the verismo ("realism") movement in Italian opera. Two years later Ruggero Leoncavallo followed with Pagliacci, which includes one of the most famous arias of all time: "Vest'ia la giubba."

What are these operas about?
Cavalleria Rusticana ("Rustic chivalry") takes place on a Sunday morning in a tiny Sicilian village. There is a love triangle between the carter Alfio, his wife, Lola and the young blade Turridu. Turridu's spurned, excommunicated ex-girlfriend reveals all. Alfio kills Turridu.

Pagliacci opens with the arrival of a company of traveling commedia dell'arte performers, led by the actor Canio. His wife Nedda is having an affair. It is revealed by the jealous hunchback Tonio. Canio, in the middle of a performance, can no longer tell fantasy from reality. In a fit of jealous rage, he murders his wife onstage.

What's the music like?
Both composers were brilliant innovators who (much to their collective chagrin) were never able to follow up on the success of these early works. Mascagni uses Sicilian folk songs, a huge chorus and a solemn Sunday religious procession to provide a vivid backdrop to his work. Leoncavallo is more playful and the better tunesmith, and that big hit tune is what everyone in the opera house will be waiting for.

Who's in it?
Roberto Alagna will push himself to the limit by singing both Turiddu and Canio in these performances. George Gagnidze will perform a similar but less strenuous feat, playing both Alfio and Tonio, the opera's antagonists. A brave choice, though not necessarily a smart one for the star tenor. Ekaterina Semenchuk and Eva-Marie Westbroek split the Santuzzas. Aleksandra Kurzak is Nedda, the ill-fated wife in Pagliacci.

How's the production?
This is a problematic staging of this double-bill. Director David McVicar decided to set both operas in the same village. For some reason, it's really, really dark on Easter morning in this humble town, because in this dingy, unsmiling Cavalleria Rusticana you can barely see any of the action. The Pagliacci jumps forward in time to the early 20th century and incorporates some skillful comic business in the play-within-a-play.

Why should I see it?
With Cav since you can't actually see much, just sit back and listen because the choral singing and orchestra will make the hour fly by. The Pagliacci is very funny and very good indeed. Also, you can see what's going on.

When does it open?
The first performance is January 8, 2018.

Where can I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save the $10 service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Which recording should I buy?

Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano cond. Herbert von Karajan, (DG 1965)

Cavalleria Rusticana:
Turiddu: Carlo Bergonzi
Santuzza: Fiorenza Cossotto
Alfio: Giangiacomo Guelfi

Pagliacci:
Canio: Carlo Bergonzi
Nedda: Joan Carlyle
Tonio: Giuseppe Taddei

These two classic recordings were originally available together on vinyl, and later in a deluxe three-CD box set along with a nice set of opera intermezzi. Now available separately as "DG Originals", they remain the heavyweight champion recordings of these two very popular operas. Carlo Bergonzi is brilliant in both leading roles. (Of course, he's not trying something dumb like singing both in one night.)  Karajan leads the La Scala orchestra and chorus in an inspired performance, showing the magic this conductor was capable of in the studio.

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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.