The Royal Opera House delivered a remarkably gripping new production of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci by Damiano Michieletto. The Italian directorial wunderkind unified the verismo double bill, setting the operas in the same Mezzogiorno village where some characters from both operas interact throughout the evening. The love triangle of Pagliacci is presaged in Cavalleria, where Nedda meets her future lover Silvio (both Pagliacci characters) in the very bakery that is run by Mamma Lucia and her son Turiddu (Cavalleria characters). Likewise the by now widowed Santuzza makes an appearance in the second opera mourning the loss of her husband. Set amidst amazingly detailed sets (Paolo Fantin) of a drab 1980s Sicilian or Calabrian village, Michieletto’s dramatic continuity raised both tension and passion, dragging the audience into a harrowing experience of provincial Italian life.
The linearity of the main personas was not significantly disturbed by the double casting of Aleksandrs Antonenko as both Turiddu and Canio, and of Dimitri Platanias as Alfio and Tonio. Casting the same tenor in both operas is a daunting undertaking that few singers can handle vocally. Beniamino Gigli was the first to do so (in 1946) and Antonenko is certainly up to the task. A crowd pleaser with an astonishingly large voice and a menacing stage presence, a very Italian singer he is not. While effective and emotionally engaging, the Latvian tenore di forza can veer towards barking and slippage in tone. Eva-Maria Westbroek delivered a large voiced Santuzza, strong and precise, though not completely credible in the role: the Dutch soprano created the title role in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole Smith – a far cry from a struggling Sicilian peasant. Greek baritone Platanias excelled as Alfio, a role that permitted him to ham up his Southern European macho credentials. Veteran Italian Mezzo Elena Zilio delivered a somewhat surprising Mamma Lucia, threatening to steal the show at every turn with her outstanding singing and acting. Perfectly cast Martina Belli gave her Covent Garden debut as the sultry Lola.
By the time the actors of Pagliacci shake up village life with their performance in the school and gymnasium, the atmosphere had become very tense. Platanias dialed up the heat with his Prologue, and Antonenko’s voice had gained some extra decibels and warmed up threateningly. Carmen Giannattasio, as his philandering wife Nedda, valiantly kept up with Antonenko’s vocal heft while delivering awesomely beautiful legato singing: dramatic, mellifluous, yet precise. A talented actress to boot, Giannattasio represents the very finest of Italianate singing today. Smaller roles were well cast with Dionysios Sourbis, now Nedda’s illicit lover after meeting him in Cavalleria, and Benjamin Hulett as Arlecchino, an appealing tenor with Mozartean qualities.
Antonio Pappano confidently led the orchestra, extracting beauty, passion and tension from the score. The Royal Opera Chorus were up to their usual extremely high standard.
The audience could not have asked for more thrilling verismo, and the performance was hopelessly sold out.
Performance attended: 18 December 2015
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