Royal Opera House (venue)
15 December 2017 (released)
15 December 2017
These two late nineteenth century operas have been paired together so consistently that they are affectionately known as 'Cav and Pag' and by the less fond as 'Ham and Eggs.' Such patronising disparagement is presumably inspired by their enormous popular success over nearly a century and a half, a popularity which relies on the melodramatic staples of love and murder to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, reinforced by the rich drama of the music and the singing.
The magnificent character roles of Turiddu in Cavalleria and Canio in Pagliacci, the betraying lover and the betrayed husband, have attracted our greatest twentieth century singers who can afford to arise above any scholarly snobbery. Caruso took the role of Canio in 1913 and Placido Domingo in 2003.
Certainly of the two operas, Pagliacci, written by Leoncavallo in response to Cavalleria's immediate success, is the most heartrending story as travelling actors play out on stage the tragedy of their lives. Traditionally, it is preceded by Cavalleria as in this production which was first seen in 2015. Both operas are part of the Verismo movement in Italy in the early 1900s which saw the common people replace Verdi's kings and queens as the subject. Sixty years later we had our 'kitchen sink dramas' which daringly (for those times) dispensed with the upper classes.
In both Cav and Pag, the 'verismo' or 'reality' is appropriately transferred to an Italian village circa 1950. In Cavalleria Rusticana, the two setings, a bakery one side (Mascagni's father was a baker) and a piazza the other, whirl round, emphasising visually the separation between personal and the public. Purists may feel a little giddy but it helps to speed up poor Santuzzi 's doom as, in public, she sees the effigy of the virgin point her finger accusingly at the sinner while in private she berates herself for permitting her seduction by Turridu. The woman she confides in is Mama Lucia, Turridu's mother; she informs the desparate mother that her beloved son is now chasing after Lola, a married woman.
All of these four parts are passionately sung. Bryan Hymel, although even more affecting as Canio in the next opera, is a despairing victim of love whose happiness is over by the end of the prologue. Elina Guranca as Santuzzi and Elena Zilio as Mama Lucia both vividly portray the trap that loving Turridu has set them and Garanca exquisitely sings 'Voi lo sappete, o mamma!' Meanwhile the return of Lola's husband, Alfio (Mark S. Doss) can only lead to tragedy and the trigger is well and truly cocked when Santuzzi blurts out that Turridu is having an affaire with his wife.
Pagliacci offers much of the same dramatic tensions: a travelling actor, Canio, rightly suspects his wife of falling in love with a man from the village where they are performing. But Canio, a clown on stage, turns out to be one of the great tragic characters. Bryan Hymel was not expecting to sing the part more than once so his replacement of Fabio Sartori is a personal triumph, although it is arguable whether any decent singer could fail to bring off the famous aria, 'Vesti la giubba.' As life mirrors art on stage, the emotional tension racks up and the orphaned girl, Nedda, (played sympathetically by Carmen Giannattasio) picked off the streets by Canio, must pay the price with lover Sylvio (Andrzej Filonczyk). A special word too for Simon Keenlyside's confident singing of Toni, the character who must open the opera by requesting permission from the audience, 'Si puo?' or 'May I?' and, history relates, once received a resounding 'No!' from a boisterous Italian audience.
The packed and enthusiastic house in which I saw the operas were far too well bred to shout anything, except hurrahs at the end, but if they had been moved to answer Toni's question it would have been with a whopping 'Yes!'