Pagliacci / Cavalleria Rusticana

Ruggero Leoncavallo / Pietro Mascagni
Dutch National Opera

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Brandon Jovanovich (Canio) in Pagliacci Credit: Dutch National Opera
Rihab Chaieb (Lola) and Brian Jagde (Turiddu) in Cavalleria Rusticana Credit: BAUS, Dutch National Opera
Elena Zilio (Lucia) and Anita Rachvelishvili (Santuzza) in Cavalleria Rusticana Credit: Dutch National Opera

The unusual running order of these two one-act thrillers, Pag-Cav instead of the usual Cav-Pag, is not the most remarkable feature of this thought-provoking 2019 production by Robert Carsen.

The radical Canadian director is known for his mise-en-scene interpretations, setting a stage within a stage to advertise the artificiality in art, and here he overturns and sends cartwheeling the pretence of reality in these most verismo of operas.

Are these characters real or merely players? Who is who, participants in the drama or audience? In an extraordinary coup de theatre at the opening of Pagliacci the soberly-dressed patrons in the first three rows of the stalls rise to a disturbance, and transform themselves into the chorus.

And at the end of Cavalleria Rusticana, they disperse, revealing a huge mirror in which the audience themselves are reflected as witnesses of the tragedies.

Along the way, Carsen plays little tricks to confuse the distinction of actor and spectator, of stage and reality. Clowns slip masks on and off as they step into and out of character, but it is the chorus in particular that personifies the ambiguity of identity.

Having gathered around the bodies of the lovers Nedda and Silvio at the conclusion of Pagliacci, they resume their positions for the second one-acter as if afraid but unable to prevent another killing.

Resuming their role as singers, they prepare in a large backstage dressing room, and are conducted by their actual chorus master. She then departs before the climactic scene between the abandoned Santuzza and the perfidious Turiddu, the authenticity of which is undermined, in Bertolt Brecht fashion, by the conductor leaving her score on a music stand facing the audience.

These are not folk from a distant time or land, but people like us, we observe. But what the production gains in relevance and immediacy it loses in colour. There is no feeling of the naïve charm of travelling performers in rural C19th Italy, or of its peasant underclass. And instead of sensing the opulent, oppressive Catholicism that condemns the pregnant Santuzza, one might be listening to the Easter Hymn in a hall of the Dutch Reformed Church.

I am happy to go along with Carsen, for the intelligence and emotional effect of the production. I would anyway forgive a lot for the magnificent performances of Anita Rachvelishvili as Santuzza in Cavalleria and Brandon Jovanovich as Canio in Pagliacci.

Rachvelishvili has a huge, glorious mezzo voice, and handles her instrument with delicacy, control and great musicianship. She maintains the same timbre at all volumes and throughout the range. In the familiar Voi la sapete, she holds back, the expression matching the throb of uncertainty in her emotions, then lets go as she plunges down on the exclamation, "She stole him", the sound as deep as a well. She is a good actress too, in what seems a perfect role, and it is painful to see her slowly rise during the intermezzo, a young woman suddenly grown old.

Jovanovich is a different kettle of fish. Much of his vocal part as the tragic clown is declamatory, a pained outpouring of raw emotion. Lowering, grimacing, he sings with appropriate roughness, sometimes midway between a cry and a growl, taking Vesti la giubba to the very edge of destruction without losing control. If Jack Nicholson could sing, he might be as scary.

Among a fine supporting cast, soprano Ailyn Perez as Nedda displays a pure top A, a lovely, even rise from low mockery to high indignation in her confrontation with Roman Burdenko’s Tonia, and a flowing legato in her rather sexy clinches with Mattia Olivieri as a softly, seductive Silvio. Brian Jagde sings a sweet off-stage Siciliana and reappears as an assertive then drunken Turiddu.

The sound level overall is recorded well, given the mobility of the chorus through the auditorium, although their words can be a little indistinct. The orchestra under Lorenzo Viotti sounds wonderful, never overwhelming, shimmering like an Italian spring in the Cavalleria prelude and heartrending in the intermezzo.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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