Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci review – The Royal Opera revives two of its finest stagings

5 December 2023

It may be cold outside, but the temperature rises as Italian director Damiano Michieletto’s exemplary productions return to Covent Garden

Cavalleria rusticana

Roberto Alagna (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Eight years after Damiano Michieletto’s exemplary stagings of these two operatic warhorses first took Covent Garden by storm, they’re back once again – their power and ingenuity undiminished on this, their fourth outing. Having seen every previous incarnation, Michieletto’s skill at bringing each vividly to life, cleverly interweaving the plots of both operas, still impresses, as do Paolo Fantin’s hyperrealistic sets and Carla Teti’s vivid costumes. Combined with Alessandro Carletti’s atmospheric lighting, this double bill retains its position as one of the company’s finest artistic achievements in recent years – an opinion that’s been enhanced, rather than diminished, by repeated viewings. 

Noa Naamat was on hand to direct proceedings this time round, following Michieletto’s keen eye for detail to the letter. No gesture is left to chance, no glance or movement out of place, yet this fastidious approach never results in a feeling that the proceedings have been micromanaged – rather the opposite. Although updated, they still stay true to their verismo credentials, and if Cavalleria rusticana took a while to get into its stride, that’s more to do with Pietro Mascagni than either the staging or the singers. Very little happens in the first 20 minutes, and we have to wait a further 20 for our ‘hero’, Turiddu, to make his entrance. In other words, it took a while for the sultry Mediterranean heat to permeate throughout the auditorium, but once the performance took flight, and the characters’ torrid passions were unleashed, the temperature rose and the entire performance became electric.

“…this double bill retains its position as one of the company’s finest artistic achievements in recent years…”

Yet again, Elena Zilio was the lynchpin of the production. She doesn’t need to utter a sound to draw the audience in, her physical presence and bearing as Mama Lucia speak volumes. In addition, the power of her singing remains undiminished, despite the passing of time. I know you should never reveal a lady’s age, but given she’s 82 years old, her achievement is all the more remarkable. Like Zilio, Dimitri Platanias first presented his Alfio when this staging was new. Despite the occasional sign of wear and tear on the voice, he still cuts a brooding, vengeful figure. The same could be said of Roberto Alagna as Turiddu, but he’s a consummate artist, and although the tone tended to spread when he sang above the stage, he sounded remarkably fresh voiced for a tenor with a 40 year career under his belt.

As his lover, Aleksandra Kurzak occasionally lacked power, especially in the high-lying passages. The role of Santuzza really cries out for a dramatic mezzo, but despite some vocal limitations, Kurzak caught the character’s desperation, and thirst for revenge to perfection. Vocally, she was better suited to the role of Nedda, which she sang at the last revival in addition to Santuzza, incidentally opposite Alagna as Canio, but still – she’s a natural stage animal and has charisma in spades. Completing the cast was Rachael Wison’s sultry, vampish Lola.

Pagliacci is the stronger of the two operas, both musically and dramatically, and this thrilling performance grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and didn’t let go until the final, devastating chord. Conductor Daniel Oren felt more at ease with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s score, catching the ebb and flow far more persuasively than he had done in the first half of the evening. As Canio descends into madness over his wife’s (Nedda) infidelity, Michieletto ingeniously blurs the lines between reality and fiction, with much of the latter half of the opera taking place inside Canio’s fevered imagination. Jorge de León, a relatively late addition to the cast, made an auspicious house debut, displaying a virile, agile tenor. Anna Princeva sang gloriously as Nedda, her creamy soprano caressing Leoncavallo’s vocal lines to perfection, while Dimitri Platanias got the opera off to a rousing start as Tonio. As Nedda’s illicit lover, Silvio, Andrzej Filończyk displayed a well-schooled, resonant baritone, clearly with a stellar career ahead of him. The Chorus has a major role to play in Michieletto’s staging, each given a specifically drawn character, and they sang lustily, and acted fabulously as well.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci review – The Royal Opera revives two of its finest stagings