As long ago as 1928, a British critic called the inseparable operatic double bill of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci “the ham and eggs of opera.” The unique phenomenon of this pairing of two works that have long been overly familiar from film and parody took a bit longer than that to be irrevocably entrenched, but it has been a commonplace of the operatic world for at least several decades and, in London, since 1959 (though there was a standalone production of Pagliacci staged as a vehicle for Plácido Domingo in 2003). After a long absence from the stage of the Royal Opera House, the Venetian director Damiano Michieletto brought the conventional program to life in 2015 with a new production that won the Olivier Award.
Arguably opera’s most promising director working today, Michieletto has a profound talent for reading between the lines and rooting his productions firmly yet very creatively in the text. Here he looks into what else Cav and Pag have in common besides their alluring tales of murderous solutions to insolvable problems. His creative innovation is to thread their stories together. Their respective Sicilian and Calabrian settings are combined to have the drama of both works unfold simultaneously in the same atmospherically decrepit village in the Italian south. Hence Cavalleria hints at the plot of Pagliacci, with posters proclaiming the arrival of the latter opera’s performing troupe and tender glimpses of the budding affair of Nedda and Silvio, which ends in their double homicide at the vengeful hands of Nedda’s husband Canio. In Pagliacci, we see the aftermath of the previous opera’s death by duel of the ne’er-do-well seducer Turridu. To the music of Pagliacci’s stirring intermezzo, his abandoned girlfriend, Santuzza, wins his mother’s affection by revealing her pregnancy. The effect is clever without being intrusive and reminds us that the petty dramas of life can and do overlap, even in the humblest communities.
Cav/Pag is such a reliable standard repertoire program that a revival of even an award-winning production might easily be overlooked. But this year’s revival cast, headed by the rising superstar tenor Bryan Hymel, was hard to ignore. Originally cast only as Turridu in Cavalleria, a colleague’s indisposition also yielded the starring role of Canio in Pagliacci. Both of these difficult parts were Hymel’s role debuts. His virtuoso performance only strengthened as the December 2 premiere evening continued. His Turridu—violent, despicable, and savage—yielded to Canio’s aching vulnerability and murderous rage with a pronounced rise in pathos and dramatic power. The voice rang out with clarion tonalities recalling Franco Corelli’s impassioned singing. After a long evening, Canio’s “Vesti la giubba,”—an aria that explores the need to suppress unbearable emotional pain—stood out as the production’s greatest solo moment.
It is hard to call the remaining cast “supporting.” Elina Garanca’s cool, affecting mezzo delivered a mellifluous, velvety Santuzza that combined suffering with ethereal love. Carmen Giannattasio’s Nedda lost no coquetry in its exploration of forbidden passion. The veteran baritone Mark Doss sang a malevolent Alfio with a pride that easily matched Turridu’s bravado. In the role of Tonio, the villain of Pagliacci who exposes Nedda’s affair after his own rejection, Simon Keenlyside captured his scheming ways but seemed a bit too wooden in delivery. Perhaps for that reason only the daring Prologue scene captured much admiration. Daniel Oren led a steady performance.