Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci: A sultry evening of lust, jealousy and revenge

5 July 2022

An ever-changing cast triumphs at the Royal Opera.

Cav & Pag

Aleksandra Kurzak (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Given the myriad cast changes that were announced ahead of the first night of The Royal Opera’s revival of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, it’s a miracle both operas made it onto the stage. Luckily they did, with the casting department having achieved the impossible – by pulling together a superbly integrated cast of singers that squeezed every last drop of emotion from these verismo warhorses.

But it can’t have been an easy task. Having replaced Anita Rachvelishvili as Santuzza before rehearsals began, Aleksandra Kurzak then took on the role of Nedda, after Ermonela Jaho withdrew from I Pagliacci due to illness. Jonas Kaufmann then cancelled all his performances as Canio, and the first two performances as Turiddu and was replaced by Fabio Sartori and
SeokJong Baek respectively. Sartori then succumbed to COVID and was replaced by Roberto Alagna for the first three performances. Sartori is due to return on 14 July – and in the meantime it was announced that Kaufmann was withdrawing from the entire run. These musical chairs made BoJo the Clown’s reshuffle look like small fry in comparison – but on a serious note it shows that COVID is far from over and is still wreaking havoc across the performing arts. Kaufmann is recovering from an earlier bout of Coronavirus, so we wish him all the best.

Given all the above, one could be forgiven for thinking that the first night would be tentative and cautious, but nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed in every respect this was an exemplary revival of Damiano Michieletto’s Olivier award-winning stagings, which proved yet again that The Royal Opera has nothing finer than these two gems in its repertoire. Within Paolo Fantin’s realistic revolving set, Michieletto paints vivid stage pictures of a down at heel community in a southern Italian village where intrigue, illicit love and jealousy abound. And by linking the two operas – we witness Silvio and Nedda’s meeting and falling in love in Cavalleria Rusticana, and Santuzza’s reconciliation with Mama Lucia in I Pagliacci – strengthens the emotional pull of both. Not only does he direct the singers with a keen eye for detail, but all the members of the augmented chorus also come alive as characters. And he’s not afraid of taking the occasional liberty as well. This pays of superbly in I Pagliacci as we witness Canio’s mental breakdown as the play within a play becomes a disturbing, nightmarish drunken vision, vividly portraying his wife’s infidelity.

“…it’s a miracle both operas made it onto the stage”

Cav & Pag

Roberto Alagna & Aleksandra Kurzak (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Aleksandra Kurzak is all pent-up passion, jealousy, and frustration as Turiddu’s spurned lover, Santuzza. There’s a newly-found weight to the voice, and she uses it thrillingly throughout. This is a role usually cast with dramatic mezzos, but not only does Kurzak possess the necessary chest voice, but her top notes easily rode the orchestra too. As Turiddu SeokJong Baek confirmed the promise he had shown in Samson et Dalila and brought dramatic weight and gleaming high notes to the role, while Elena Zilio’s heart-wrenching performance as Mama Lucia rightly brought the house down. It’s hard to believe she’s in her 80s – her singing was authoritative and her acting all a piece with the character. She’s the only singer to have appeared in each of the stagings’ outings and proved once again to be the lynchpin of the performance. Dimitri Platanias made his mark as Alfio, while Aigul Akhmetshina was a sultry-toned Lola.

It’s a while since Roberto Alagna has appeared at Covent Garden, and while a hard edge to his tone may have crept in here and there, no one could doubt the commitment, energy and drive he brought to the role of Canio. Watching his character disintegrate before our eyes as the evening progressed was mesmerising – his acting and singing were electrifying. Not surprisingly given they’re married, his onstage chemistry with Aleksandra Kurzak’s deliciously-sung Nedda was palpable. She was well inside the role and was equally at ease in the coloratura as she had been earlier in the more dramatic outpourings as Santuzza – what a triumph! Platanias returned as a creepy Tonio, while the young Italian, Mattia Olivieri was nothing short of sensational as Silvio – his warm, dynamic baritone ringing out magnificently – his Figaro next year here promises to be unmissable.

The architect of the evening’s musical success was Antonio Pappano, who is peerless in this repertoire. His conducting was sensitive to his singers yet didn’t hold back where required. The orchestra played faultlessly for him, while the Chorus were on terrific form – their singing of the Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana pinned you to the back of your seat. As the season comes to a close, this fabulously sung, and gloriously conducted double bill will rank as one of its undisputed highlights. As we were leaving the auditorium on a high, we spotted Theresa May and her security detail in the foyer – how apt she chose to attend an opera about the demise of a clown.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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