Eva-Maria Westbroek as Santuzza and Marcelo Alvarez as Turiddu in Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana." Photo by Cory Weaver/ Metropolitan Opera.
At the Metropolitan Opera, they have a new production of “Cav ’n’ Pag,” the most common double bill in opera. Cav is Cavalleria Rusticana, by Mascagni; Pag is Pagliacci, by Leoncavallo. The production is by Sir David McVicar, the Scotsman. He has become a go-to director for the Met.
His production of Cav ’n’ Pag replaces the Zeffirelli production of 1970. One by one they’re going, the Zeffirelli productions. Are there any left? The Turandot? Ah, well: “To every thing (turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn).”
For these last several years, I’ve said, “If you’re going to ditch Zeffirelli, at least do it for something very different.” Sir David’s Cav is very, very different. The Zeffirelli Cav was light, colorful, vivid. The new Cav is dark and very ugly.
Everything is black (including the wardrobe). The stage has one of those big lazy Susans. There are lots and lots of chairs, sometimes stacked (if I remember correctly). I once played a stacking-chairs game with the little daughter of friends. I thought of that game.
Turiddu’s friends and Alfio’s friends are gangsters or gangster-like (I think). A few of them break out in Broadway-style dance, which is nice. At the end of the opera, the entire village turns its back on Santuzza and Mamma Lucia, shunning them, apparently.
During intermission on Saturday night, I asked a friend of mine, “Did you understand the production?” My friend is one of the finest music scholars in America. Disgustedly, he shook his head and said, “No.” Me neither.
It seems to me that Sir David is working with a Concept. In his own head, everything is clear and right. He and his five closest friends know exactly what he’s doing. But a production ought to be clear, at least reasonably so, to an audience. It ought to support the opera rather than offend it.
Also, a director should bear the newcomer in mind, I think. Sure, the director has seen the opera a hundred times. But what about the newcomer? I had one with me. He still hasn’t seen Cavalleria rusticana, really. At least he heard it.
Fabio Luisi conducted with great warmth and tenderness. Cav is an extremely beautiful opera, in addition to a dramatic and emotional one. Luisi made a couple of errors, however. He “steered” the Intermezzo, instead of letting it unfold naturally. He did the same with the drinking song and some other music. Still, he acquitted himself very well (and would in Pag, too).
Portraying Turiddu was Marcelo Álvarez, the Argentinian tenor. He sang as he usually does: with suavity, a general understanding, and a beautiful voice. Some of his pitches were approximate, and his Italian was flavored with the Spanish. He has some things in common with Plácido Domingo, the great Spaniard (who happened to be in attendance, applauding generously).
Unlike Domingo, Álvarez has an instrument a bit small for Turiddu, as for Canio in Pag. But this was not at all disqualifying.
Santuzza was portrayed by Eva-Maria Westbroek, the Dutch soprano. First, the negative: Her singing was surprisingly tremulous. She was not very Italianate. The voice was sometimes fuzzy. And she had little cutting power. Now for the positive: She is Eva-Maria Westbroek, one of the ablest and most touching singers around. Santuzza is touching anyway; Westbroek makes her more so.
Incidentally, the director, or someone, has her sing the Easter Hymn on her knees. She is able to rise for her final notes, however.
The Georgian baritone George Gagnidze was Alfio. He seems to specialize in dark, thuggish, volcanic characters—Scarpia et al. Alfio is up his alley. Lola, the Bad Girl, was sung by Ginger Costa-Jackson, an American mezzo (who has kind of a bad-girl name, doesn’t she?). She was excellent, a coquettish spitfire, if you can imagine. Jane Bunnell, another American mezzo, was Mamma Lucia. She sang the part with vocal and theatrical wisdom.
Cavalleria rusticana is a strongly choral opera, and the Metropolitan is a strongly choral company—which made a nice fit.
Before moving on to Pag, I would like to jot a footnote about Cav: Toward the end of the opera, Turiddu cries out, “Mamma!” It is a terrible, gut-wrenching moment. In the past, Met audiences have laughed—because a grown man is crying out for his mommy, and that is, in some circumstances, funny. But not these circumstances. On Saturday night, Álvarez sang “Mamma” rather softly. There was no laughter, which was a relief.
Sir David’s Pagliacci begins with Tonio coming out in a pink tuxedo jacket with sparkling gold lapels. He sings the Prologue into a microphone, with sidekicks jerking on the cord. (The microphone is not turned on, I should say. It’s just a prop.) Gagnidze was Tonio, and he looked a little like Jackie Gleason. The sidekicks, all through the opera, reminded me of the Three Stooges.
I say this in praise. While Sir David’s Cav is unclear and unfitting (in my judgment), his Pag is clear and fitting. It is interesting but not warping. It allows the opera to have its awful impact. It is striking to see.
In brief, this production—the Pag half—is a success.
Marcelo Álvarez, as Canio, was charismatic (if, again, a bit underpowered). Eva-Maria Westbroek sat out this opera, giving way to Patricia Racette, the American soprano. As Nedda, Racette displayed her usual blend of strength and lyricism. She was wobbly on top, and her trills were faked—but these were nothing in the face of her overall ability. She helped give the opera its intensity, suspense, and tragedy. In the role of Silvio was Lucas Meachem, an American baritone. That is a seriously beautiful instrument.
Let me make a general statement about Pagliacci: When it doesn’t come off, it is kind of silly. When it does, it is pulverizing. (And it did on Saturday night.)
To end, a couple of footnotes, please:
1) It seems to me that Canio’s aria, “Vesti la giubba,” was once the most famous tenor aria (Italian division). It was the paradigmatic tenor aria. At some point, it was passed by “Nessun dorma,” from Puccini’s Turandot. Because of the Three Tenors and the World Cup, I think.
2) Pagliacci has a children’s chorus. Piccolo, as you know, means “little” in Italian. The Met’s program told us that the director of the children’s chorus was—a fellow named Piccolo. Bello.