Italian neorealism of the 1950s and 60s lurks behind Damiano Michieletto’s 2015 Covent Garden staging of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, now on its third revival, overseen by Noa Naamat and conducted by Daniel Oren. It remains a compelling piece of theatre, subtle in its attention to psychological detail, compassionate, and admirably avoids melodrama in its exploration of emotional extremes.
Michieletto sets both operas in the same poor Italian town and interweaves their characters and narratives. Cavalleria Rusticana centres on the bakery run by Mamma Lucia (Elena Zilio), where Pagliacci’s Silvio (Andrzej Filończyk) also works, and where he first meets Nedda (Anna Princeva) while she’s handing out publicity leaflets for the touring company’s show. Pagliacci, meanwhile, takes place in the local municipal hall-cum-theatre, where we also now find the pregnant Santuzza (Aleksandra Kurzak) moving towards reconciliation with the initially unforgiving Mamma Lucia after the death of Roberto Alagna’s Turiddu.
Michieletto’s approach is largely naturalistic, though each opera tips towards surrealism in a hallucinatory moment of crisis. Santuzza cowers in terror before a vision of the Madonna extending her arm in condemnation during the Easter procession. And as the actor Canio (Jorge de León) loses his grip on reality in Pagliacci, we witness events on stage and offstage begin to meld, buckle and blur in his mind.
Musically, there is much to admire, though Oren, sometimes solid rather than inspired, takes time to get into his stride in Cavalleria, the opening of which is both too slow and too refined, and it’s only when we reach the confrontation between Alagna and Kurzak that the opera begins to exert its grip.
Alagna’s voice has lost some of its lustre of late, but this is nevertheless a powerful portrait of a man unwillingly facing the consequences of his own unthinking sensuality. Kurzak, who has admirably made the transition from coloratura to dramatic soprano, is unsparingly intense in her rage, wounded pride and sheer desperation. She and Zilio are both terrific stage animals – the relationship between the two women really convinces. Rachael Wilson, meanwhile, is the knowing Lola, Dimitri Platanias the brutish Alfio, whom Michieletto imagines as a self-made man, whose money, however, can’t buy love.
Platanias also plays Tonio in Pagliacci, singing the famous Prologue with handsome tone and considerable dignity, though later the mix of insidious pianissimos and declamatory ferocity make him very malign indeed. De León, dark voiced and brooding, admirably captures the violence and incipient instability that lurk, barely concealed, beneath Canio’s charismatic exterior, and Princeva and Filończyk, are just gorgeous together in their love duet, where you don’t mind Oren’s lingering tempi for once. Pagliacci, carefully paced, suits him better than Cavalleria Rusticana, in fact. Playing and choral singing, meanwhile, are exemplary throughout.