Let’s clear up a misunderstanding: Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni and Pagliacci by Leoncavallo have almost always and almost everywhere been billed as a diptych but they are certainly not that. It was just a convenient solution: two short operas that matched each other in terms of musical language and emotions could easily be programmed on one evening. The fact that the composers were more or less the same age and that their operas were created at the same time was also a bonus. But to say that they belong together and that they should always stay together? No.
Also the order: first Cavalleria and then Pagliacci is not really fixed. That too, after more than a hundred years just became tradition. A tradition that no longer has been strictly followed for years. So there is nothing revolutionary about changing the order. Personally, I’ve seen several performances that started with the ‘Prologo.’ Something that seems quite logical to me.
Robert Carsen is one of the greatest opera directors in the world. His theatre-in-theatre vision is still valuable, after all he became famous for it, but with this staging he went back, as it were, to his early years in Antwerp. Everything that worked as an eye-opener at the time now looks quite old-fashioned and second hand. How many times before have we seen rows of empty chairs? Sigh.
And yet… He is and remains perfect at Personenregie. His mise en scène, although sometimes I don’t care for it it, is certainly of the highest level. Above all, his staging of Pagliacci is nothing less than phenomenal. The fact that the stage is almost bare doesn’t matter, because that magnifies the emotions of the characters, also because Carsen allows the singers to play out the ‘veristic’ aspects which really works very well. So good, in fact, that at the intermission I left the auditorium with a tearful face.
Compared to the first half, Cavalleria Rusticana was a cold shower. Here, all emotions were degraded to below zero, as people were only rehearsing for the performance of – how do you guess? – Cavalleria Rusticana. Interesting, though, but haven’t we seen that a thousand times before? Think of Carsens Don Giovanni for La Scala. Or his Hoffmann for Paris. So second-hand.
The story itself was mutilated so terribly that at a certain moment I lost my mind and thought that Santuzza’s aria was cut in half. It wasn’t, but it reflects the confusion. I’m not going to complain about it anymore, but forget about Sicily, forget about Easter Sunday. ‘A te la mala Pascua’, for me the key to the opera, was translated as ‘I wish you a miserable day.’ It felt just as strange as Puccini would be played by a small baroque ensemble with Emma Kirkby as Tosca. Every period has its own rules and verismo is about raw reality.
With this ‘diptych’ Lorenzo Viotti, our new chief conductor, made his debut with the National Opera almost two years earlier than scheduled. It was more than exciting: for us, for the orchestra but most of all for Viotti himself. I have to say that the acquaintance made me quite happy. Not that everything went so fantastically and flawlessly, that wasn’t possible either. Imagine standing in his shoes!
I think Viotti has more affinity with Pagliacci than with Cavalleria and that was audible. His Pagliacci was extremely exciting. He did not shy away from big outbreaks but also took the time for moments of reflection. All these emotions were audible in the orchestra pit, which reinforced the sensation.
For ‘Cavalleria’ the music was on a low heat and the famous Intermezzo was played so faintly that nobody applauded, despite the small break, meant for the applause that did not come. But perhaps it also had to do with the concept of Carsen? Hard to say.
Anyway, enough complaining, because the most important thing in the opera is the singing, which was simply terrific! What we got was no less than the ‘sternstunde’ you’ve been experiencing so rarely these days. And to think that the most protagonists made their debut in their roles!
First and foremost: kudos to the chorus of the National Opera. They carried the opera on their shoulders (sometimes literally). They played, they acted, they walked in and out of the auditorium, and in Pagliacci they even became the spectators: as it should be. And ‘in between’ they sang, and how! I really do take my hat off to that.
Brandon Jovanovich made his double debut: it was his first Canio and it was the first time he sang with the DNO. Why did we have to wait so long to hear this great American tenor in real life? His portrayal of the clown who does not want to be a clown was of the highest level. And, let me tell you: I cried at his ‘ Vesti la giubba. ‘ I really cried. And that’s what the opera is about, isn’t it? Thanks Brandon!
His Nedda was sung by a now major star on the opera firmament: Ailyn Pérez. What can I say? That her fame is not undeserved and that it has not come out of the blue? Her quicksilver coloraturas were a delight to the ear and her performance worthy of a movie star.
Mattia Olivieri was a beautiful, sensual Silvio. With his creamy baritone he managed to convey his feelings for Nedda. Although I personally think it was more lust than anything else (don’t tell! #metoo listens in!).
I was very pleased to be introduced to the young tenor Marco Ciaponi (Beppe). His role was small, but I heard great potential!
And then we arrive at Tonio/Taddeo/prologo: Roman Burdenko. I am not often lost for words, but this time I was really speechless after the performance of this baritone. It was even more impressive because after intermission he continued as Alfio, in:
And if you list all the roles he sang in one evening without a break, you can’t help but bow your head in admiration.
I had heard Brian Jagde (his name is pronounced the German way) twice before. Once live, in Verdi’s Requiem. The second time was on the DVD recording of Das Wunder der Heliane by Korngold, where he performed about the best Stranger in history. I was more than anxiously awaiting his debut as Turiddu. Not in vain. Jagde was the Turiddu of many girl’s dreams: attractive, seductive, macho, but with a small heart. Wonderful.
Rihab Chaieb was a Lola as we remember from old Italian films. Her dress, her hairstyle, her presence resembled none other than Gina Lollobrigida. Very sensual and provocative, as it should be. We’ll hear more of her.
Elena Zilio (mama Lucia) sang incredibly well, but her character didn’t really come into its own. Actually she was totally left to her own devices by Carsen and that’s a pity.
But the real star of the evening was the Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili. My God, how wonderful she was! I would have liked to hear her in a different, more realistic staging of the opera. One, where she can let go of all her emotions – and she has them all ready – without the armour of ‘the rehearsal’.
All in all: don’t miss it. Even if it is only because of the singers!
Trailer of the production:
Final applause (© Ron Jacobi)
Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci
Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana
Brandon Jovanovich, Ailyn Pérez, Roman Burdenko, Mattia Olivieri, Anita Rachvelishvili, Brian Jagde, Elena Zilio, Rihab Chaieb
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir of the National Opera (rehearsal Ching-Lien Wu) conducted by Lorenzo Viotti.
Directed by Robert Carsen
Seen on 5 September 2019
About Cavalleria Rusticana:
Is verismo dead? Part 1: Cavalleria Rusticana