Cavalleria Rusticana/ Pagliacci, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, December 2017

When Leoncavallo wrote Pagliacci he had in mind the brilliant success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana — written to win a prize competition — and in this production of the double bill, director Damiano Michieletto cleverly combines the two operas.

Lola and Turiddu in Cav, all images ROH/ Catherine Ashmore

The travelling players of Pagliacci appear in the village where Cavalleria Rusticana takes place, and in the Intermezzo of each opera a silent scene from the other is played out. In the Cav intermezzo we see Nedda’s lover Silvio as the junior baker in Mama Lucia’s panificio, and in the Pagliacci intermezzo we see Santuzza talking to a priest before her reconciliation with Mama Lucia.

Turiddu and Santuzza

While the modern setting of Cavalleria Rusticana works well, that of Pagliacci is truly effective as the set turns from backstage to front, and doubles appear on the performing stage of Act II while the real performers are off-stage, after climbing through the mirror in Canio’s dressing room. Excellent ghostly lighting in those scenes, with the additional effect of Canio seeing the (on-stage) audience as conspirators in his humiliation.

Tonio’s prologue in Pagliacci

Clever production effects aside, this was a fantastic performance of both operas with an exceptional Simon Keenlyside as Tonio in Pagliacci. His prologue, sung to the real audience was terrific, and his aria about being deformed was superbly sung and acted, the hunched silhouette on the wall adding to the effect. Not many top-flight baritones could have carried off Fagin in the musical Oliver! as effectively as Keenlyside at Grange Park Opera in 2016, and his acting is now nonpareil.

Canio threatens Nedda

As principal tenor, Bryan Hymel made great role debuts, his Turiddu in Cav a bolshie and very effective presence, and his Canio in Pag confused, determined, yet never over-acted. His duet with the wonderful Santuzza of Elīna Garanča in the first opera was hugely realistic, and she was a mesmerising presence, with her despair before the Easter hymn and huge emotion later as she informs Alfio his wife has stolen her beloved Turiddu. As Nedda in Pagliacci, Carmen Giannattasio’s performance gave fine expression to her passion for young Polish baritone Andrzej Filończyk’s excellent Silvio in their beautifully sung duet. Other principal roles were well cast, Martina Belli a sensitive and powerful Lola, Mark S. Doss a rough and ready Alfio in Cav, Luis Gomes a very fine Beppe in Pagliacci, and Elena Zilio reprising her Mama Lucia from two years ago.

Conducting by Daniel Oren showed excellent orchestral dynamics, fully capturing the emotion of the music. This was a hell of a performance with the chorus a superb part of the dramatic and vocal action.

Performances continue with two different casts on various dates until January 13 — for details click here.

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