Passion, adultery, treachery and murder – these are the hallmarks of ‘verismo’ opera. What set this new genre apart from what had come before was that the protagonists were ordinary folk – bakers, carters, and seamstresses – not kings, bishops, and countesses. The two short operas in this Covent Garden double bill go together to create a magical evening of the best of verismo. It’s another triumph for the Royal Opera’s marvellous music director, Antonio Pappano, whose passion for the drama and whose ability to bring the best out of his singers seems to reach new heights each season.
The evening begins with Mascagni’s tale of the lecherous Turiddu, his adulterous passion for Lola, the wife of carter Alfio, and his cruel rejection of his former lover, Santuzza. The opera is awash with wonderful music – the orchestral intermezzo is perhaps the most famous moment but the brilliance of Mascagni’s musical imagination is evident from the very first notes sung by Turridu offstage, extolling the beauty of his lover Lola. And the tremendous Easter hymn gives the Covent Garden chorus every opportunity to sing its socks off. All three of the principal roles are sung with total commitment – Westbroek has all the vocal and dramatic power needed to bring Santuzza’s heartbreak to vivid life. Best singing of the night came from Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias as Alfio (and later as Tonio in Pagliacci) He is vocally commanding and entirely convincing in the role – his icy surge of anger when Santuzza impulsively tells him of Lola’s treachery is perfect. Antonenko sang brilliantly at the start of the evening but he lost tone and sounded strained by the end of Cavalleria – and he struggled as Canio in Pagliacci. In the cameo role of Mamma Lucia, Elena Zilio was superb. Pappano brought the best out of the orchestra and the chorus.
Pagliacci is not as easy to like for its music but the intensity of the drama makes up for the lack of musical highlights. It is the story of a group of travelling players led by Canio whose wife Nedda has grown tired of him. To the performances of Antonenko and Platanias as Canio and Tonio is added the Nedda of Carmen Giannattasio. She has a lovely soprano voice, she looks stunning even in her short blonde wig and she manages the difficult task of keeping her cool as Tonio loses his and she realises that his murderous jealousy is the real thing.
The production is splendid. Both operas are set by director, Damiano Michieletto, in a peasant village in southern Italy in perhaps the 1960s. The setting looks right and the chorus create a real feeling of a tight rural community riven by rumour and revenge. The director cleverly links the two pieces. As the villagers gather for the Easter day service in Cavalleria, a worker is putting up posters advertising a performance of Pagliacci. The first opera is set inside a bakery and in the village square outside the bakery and the revolve stage is used to perfection. Pagliacci is set in the community centre and the action alternates between the hall where the ‘play within a play’ takes place and the backstage dressing room where Canio’s sanity begins to unravel as jealousy gets a grip on him.
This is the Royal Opera at its splendid best.