“CAVALLERIA Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” are often seen as going together like fish and chips.
Not champagne and caviar, note, for “Cav” and “Pag” as they are known in the operatic parlance, were at the forefront of a movement to create operas about the common people and not the champagne drinking class so dominant since the invention of this art form in the courts of Italy.
Nasty little tales of provincial village life they may be, but both are raised to immortality by glorious music.
In this coproduction with the Royal Opera Göteborg Opera Sweden and La Monnaie Brussels, trendsetting Italian director Damiano Michieletto endeavours to knit the two into one harmonious artistic whole, setting both during the Easter season (“Pagliacci” was originally set at Ascensiontide) and subtly interpolating characters from each into the other opera.
This is only partially successful, although composer Leoncavallo wrote “Pag” in partial homage to “Cav”, the two works could not be more different. Far from ironing out those differences, this otherwise impressive production only serves to highlight them. The decision to begin “Cavalleria Rusticana” with the death of Turiddu and make the whole thing a flashback seemed unnecessary.
Probably the most obvious tactic employed in this revival by director Rodula Gaitanou was to cast two of Australia’s most outstanding singers, tenor Diego Torre and baritone José Carbó as lead characters in both an operatic treat for audiences. This too proved less than successful, for the dramatic quality of “Pagliacci” is so far in advance of its predecessor that the casting served to highlight the thinness of the characterisation in “Cavalleria Rusticana”.
Having said that, several stunning performances in the first of the two operas made it a suitable precursor to “Pagliacci” as it usually is. Of these, the standouts were Serbian dramatic soprano Dragana Radakovic as the revengeful Santuzza, whose unusually complex voice filled out the character. The other “stars” were Opera Australia’s chorus (including an impressive children’s chorus) and orchestra, for Mascagni’s opera is justly celebrated for its wonderful choral set pieces, overture and intermezzi, brilliantly rendered while sacrificing little realism.
But the production’s excessive recourse to pantomimic gesturing and ever-changing scenery on the revolve drew attention to the fact that dramatic interaction is rather light on in this opera.
Not so in the concluding opera “Pagliacci”, whose libretto was also written by the composer Leoncavallo is a kind of treatise on “verismo” or stage reality. From the outset when Carbó appears as the Prologue, we, the audience are invited in on the secret that this is not a conventional opera and that the fourth wall of theatrical convention will be torn down.
It is, although in two of the famous arias, “Stridono lassù”, sung by soprano Anna Princeva as the straying wife Nedda and the much more famous “Vesti la Giubba”, sung by Torre as the tragic clown Canio, the performances were so powerful that the audience gasped in sympathetic applause, especially for Canio.
In the last moments of “Pagliacci”, however, both composer and director turned back to the conflict between real life and the stage, making the bloody conclusion the more shocking and the totality of the evening ultimately satisfying.
All photos by Keith Saunders.