Uneven New Cav/Pag at the Met

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; April 29, 2015—The Metropolitan Opera’s generations-old productions of opera’s most famous double bill has stood the company in good stead since 1970. Even those who referred to Franco Zeffirelli’s “finest poverty-stricken villages money can buy” couldn’t deny their effectiveness, but it was time for a change. The results are mixed.

David McVicar is a fine, thinking man’s director who does not subscribe to any one theory of European Regietheater. Working on a set by Rae Smith, however, he seems to have drawn a blank with Cavalleria Rusticana; it’s pretty dreadful. He sees it as a morbid work, which is acceptable–it’s never been accused of being fun; but everything is black and white (mostly black), which is way-off for an Easter morning ritual in the south of Italy, and set on a turntable that revolves far more often than it needs to.

Endless re-arrangement of stiff-backed chairs makes up most of the action against the barely-lit walls of the church. The townsfolk, in everyday poor-village clothing, are lackluster and the Easter procession itself is a dark affair. The men are clownish thugs and the women are shadowy, mundane characters. Santuzza is always on stage, on the periphery–the eternal outsider. There’s some religious symbolism at a long table during Turiddu’s drinking song that is noticeable but uninteresting. Even at its best, Cav is an opera that takes a quarter of an hour to get started; here you keep waiting. The entire production lacks wallop.

Pagliacci, however, has lit McVicar’s imagination brightly. Updated to the 1940s on the same set by Rae Smith, liveliness and excitement are the orders of the day. Where the bleak Cav was curtainless, here we see one for the Pag Prologue that is truly tasteless and funny–blue velvet, with gold cut-out stars–a seedy Vaudeville act is about to take place.

When the opera begins, the brick church walls are the same, but the square is strung with lights and the public mills about. A truck with our players breaks down and the rest of the act is well-played, with the turntable more wisely used. The second act, play-within-a-play, is true vaudeville, with shaving cream fights, pratfalls, and costumes and actions of epic vulgarity–Nedda (Columbina) comes close to doing a striptease. The build-up to the final catastrophe is quick and terrifying. The show leaves us breathless.

The singing in Cav was also below standard. Eva-Marie Westbroek, so effective as Sieglinde and in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, sounded miscast and insecure as the ultimate verismo heroine, Santuzza. To say that the role requires a juicier, more Mediterranean sound is not the only issue; pitch problems and unsteadiness on high notes did not help. She did what she could dramatically, but it didn’t quite gel. Marcelo Alvarez made a good Turiddu, his handsome sound perhaps a bit less brutal than needed, but he phrases well and he did what he could in his surroundings.

Rounding out the three uni-dimensional lead characters was George Gagnidze’s bland Alfio, but you have to admit that singing an aria while men do horse-kicks (choreography by Andrew George) can put a damper on almost anything. Jane Bunnell was a chilly Mamma Lucia and Ginger Costa-Jackson tramped it up as Lola, exhibiting a warm, sultry mezzo.

Pagliacci was altogether better. Alvarez truly came into his own, despite not having a voice with quite the heft to frighten; his acting was focused and right-on, and he sang his big aria with beautiful tone and depth, without resorting to sobbing or gasping. His final scene was crazed in all the right ways. Gagnidze impressed as Tonio, singing the Prologue with rounded tone and the role’s nastier bits with an audible sneer. Patricia Racette’s Nedda may not have found the soprano’s voice in its first bloom of youth, but, as ever she was more than convincing. Lucas Meachem’s Silvio was beautifully sung.

Conductor Fabio Luisi brought out beauty in both scores that I had not previously heard. His tempos tended toward the slowish, and while this took tension away occasionally, one was amazed anew at the sheer loveliness of Cav’s Intermezzo and the prelude to Pagliacci’s second act, with its preponderance of low strings and brass. Orchestra and chorus were their usual magnificent selves. The verdict, of course, is that this pairing is fine enough to be seen, with Pagliacci winning the day enough to negate the mis-direction of Cavalleria.