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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Opera Review: The Mystery of the Deadly Double

Roberto Alagna doubles up in Cav-Pag at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ekaterina Semenchuk canoodles with Roberto Alagna in Cavelleria Rusticana, before the
star tenor goes on to sing Pagliacci (right.) Photos by Ken Howard © 2018 The Metropolitan Opera.
On Monday night, the Metropolitan Opera opened the first revival of 2018: a reprise of Sir David McVicar's 2015 production of that durable verismo twin bill: Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. This run featured the return of Roberto Alagna to the principal tenor roles of each opera (a feat he also managed last season) against the actor who played the two antagonists in the production's premiere: baritone George Gagnidze.

This feat of double-casting alone would not lend these two shows the dramatic unity of say, Le Contes d'Hoffmann.. However, Sir David ups the ante by setting each work in the same physical location: a rural village somewhere in southern Italy, some forty-odd years apart. Both works feature a crumbling brick aqueduct, a rotating stage and a tavern, but the world of Pagliacci has embraced electricity and motor vehicles.

Mr. Alagna is not the same brash singer that stormed the Met stage forty years ago. The voice has darkened, acquiring a dusky color that was well suited to Turiddu, the knife-fighting bravo whose death is at the center of Cavalleria Rusticana. Indeed, this bleak staging of the Mascagni opera was helped by flashes of real chemistry between the tenor and Santuzza (Ekaterina Semenchuk). Their clutching duet was the emotional core of this entire performance, propelled along flawlessly by the conducting of Nicola Luisotti.

Ms. Semenchuk's performance was the burning, fiery heart of this Cavelleria Rusticana.. This is a tricky role, because social mores of the time forbade the librettist from saying exactly why Santuzza was excommunicated from the Church. She was matched in passion by Jane Bunnell in the smaller role of Mamma Lucia. Soprano Rihab Chaieb made a strong impression as Lola, whose affair with Turiddu ends in bloodshed.

Mr. Alagna sounded thin and dry in the first scene of Pagliacci. However, his "Vestia la giubba" (delivered both at Canio's makeup table and in front of the glittering, spangled curtain) was tip-top, moving and slightly over-the-top. From there, the performance was easy sailing, with Mr. Alagna and soprano Aleksandra Kurzak making the play-within-the-play a harrowing, edge-of-the-seat experience. For her part, Ms. Kurzak sang a memorable Nedda, delivering the last lines of her high-flying "Stridono lassu" from a prone position. Her searing scene with George Gagnidze's Tonio presaged the intensity of the second act of Tosca, and a long and ardent duet with Silvio (baritone Allesio Arduini) provided that fine singer with a welcome opportunity. Tenor Andrew Bidlack made the most of his brief solo as Beppe.

In the double roles of Alfio and Tonio, George Gagnidze was crucial to the success of this ambitious double bill. He plays the former as a hulking brute, a man of honor who is backed up by Mafia-like goons. Indeed, the alteration of the house's English Met Titles to "They've killed Turiddu" brings an unwelcome revision to the end of this first opera. He was even better as Tonio, seeming to play the Prologue, the loutish actor and the hapless clown Taddeo with quick and sometimes terrifying shifts of gears.

After some trial and error, the Met has finally gotten this tricky Cavalleria right. The ritualistic passages are still intact, with the chorus and orchestra bringing weight to the Easter hymn and the strange procession of candles giving a haunted quality to the intermezzo. The lighting has been gently tweaked, and the whole show no longer takes place in Stygian darkness. Pagliacci remains a blaze of light, which slowly fades to gloom as the tragedy spools out. 

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