There are no happy marriages in “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” but the two one-act operas are permanently wedded together. In fact, the first house in which they were paired was the Metropolitan Opera.
Now, the Met has unveiled a new production of these two verismo operas, directed by David McVicar, and both star tenor Marcelo Álvarez.
Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (“Rustic Chivalry”), which premiered in Rome in 1890, is based on a story and later a play, both by Giovanni Verga. Set in a Sicilian village on Easter Sunday, it deals with love and revenge.
Before the action on stage begins, Turiddu had been in love with Lola. After he went into the army, she married Alfio. On his return, Turiddu took up with Santuzza but dropped her when he rekindled his affair with Lola.
Santuzza tells Lola’s husband, Alfio, of his wife’s adultery and immediately regrets spilling the beans.
When the villagers return from church, Turiddu sings a drinking song. He offers Alfio a glass of wine but the response is a challenge to a knife fight. Mamma Lucia didn’t hear this exchange but senses something is wrong. Turiddu gives the excuse that the wine is going to his head. He implores his mother to take care of Santuzza and then leaves.
Unlike the story on which the opera is based, where the fight and death are set forth in detail, here the action takes place offstage. At the end, there are shouts and a woman screams that Turiddu has been killed.
The prior production of the opera, designed by Franco Zeffirelli, recreated a Sicilian village. The new one, designed by Rae Smith, is stark. There’s just the walls of a church and initially a row of chairs. Moritz Junge’s costumes depict the townspeople dressed in black. It’s gloomy but effective.
In contrast to the monochromatic “Cavalleria Rusticana,” “Pagliacci” is a swirl of colors. It starts with the famous Prologue, sung by Tonio (the villain of the piece). He comes out with a microphone, as if he were in the Las Vegas of the Met’s current “Rigoletto.”
While he sings, there are some comic hijinks, involving a tug of war for the microphone with the other clowns in the troupe. This is a misstep by director McVicar since it undercuts the serious content of the aria, in which the singer informs the audience that the story about to be told is true and that actors endure the same problems as everyone else.
Things improve after that. The director moves the action from the mid-19th century to the late 1940s. It has the look of the Fellini film “La Strada” with the colors of “Amarcord” or “The Clowns.”
Canio is the head of a traveling theatrical troupe and is married to Nedda (another member of the company). Tonio (one of the clowns) tries to force his intentions on her, but Nedda fights him off, after which Tonio swears revenge.
Nedda is unfaithful but not with Tonio; she is in love with Silvio, a young peasant in the area. Tonio hears the two lovers plan to run off together and alerts Canio. During a stage performance—a play within a play about a wife (portrayed by Nedda) planning to poison her husband (portrayed by Canio)—he snaps. In a fit of rage, Canio stabs his wife and Silvio, after which Tonio announces that the comedy is over.
The two operas contain some of the most famous arias in opera. “Cavalleria” has three for the tenor: his serenade to Lola (sung offstage), the drinking song, and “Mamma, quel vino è generoso,” Turiddu’s farewell to his mother before he rushes off to his death.
Álvarez is in top form here, as he is in “Pagliacci,” where he sings the dramatic “Vesti la giubba” about how he must act the clown even though his heart is breaking.
The soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek is moving as Santuzza in “Cavalleria,” delivering a stunning rendition of “Voi lo sapete.” Mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell is sympathetic as Mamma Lucia, and mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson (perhaps a future Carmen) is the sultry Lola.
Baritone George Gagnidze makes a strong impression as both the wronged husband Alfio in “Cavalleria” and the malicious Tonio in “Pagliacci.”
As Nedda, Patricia Racette looks and sounds right for the part, just as she is in the Puccini roles she often plays at the Met; baritone Lucas Meachem is convincingly romantic as the doomed Silvio.
The orchestra performs beautifully under the baton of Fabio Luisi (especially in “Cavalleria”), and the chorus under Donald Palumbo is a pleasure, as always.
The double bill of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci” runs through May 8 at the Metropolitan Opera House; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.
The Met: Live in HD performance of the double bill will be shown on April 25th at 12:30 p.m. at local theaters.