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Sunday, February 09, 2014

Itchy and Scratchy

Day at the Opera Dept.: Opera has always been juicy, reworking the bloody moments of classic drama into entertainment all the more satisfying because the music intensifies the emotion. Mascagni took it a step further with the 1890 premiere of Cavalleria rusticana, which sought to offer a more realistic look at the lives thus portrayed. Verismo, as it was called, was furthered by Leoncavallo, whose Pagliacci enshrined the image of the tormented clown. The two short operas, often paired, are known as “Cav and Pag,” and it just such a pairing by Glimmerglass Opera a dozen years ago that I reviewed for the late


A CONFRONTATION BETWEEN TWO MEN silently plays out on a platform center stage. Beyond it, in bleachers, an audience reacts. The confrontation grows more violent. There’s a stabbing. Then the orchestra kicks in with the prologue from Pagliacci.

Alice Busch Opera Theater
It’s the unorthodox start of the unorthodox staging of the verismo twins, presented in reverse of the traditional order. That’s so the villagers of Cavalleria rusticana, most dressed in green, can enjoy the performance of the Pagliacci cast before plunging into the drama of their own – and isn’t that Turiddu having a passionate smooch with Lola while the Pagliacci Intermezzo sounds?

Before Tonio addresses the audience, he’s presented as the author of this drama (baritone Ned Barth displayed a Leonard Warren-rich voice and an appropriately menacing presence). But his assurance that we’re in for a big slice of truth already has been undermined by the stagy self-consciousness of the setting. Which actually is a good thing: Pagliacci is hardly the verismatic piece it was when new, and we might as well acknowledge its melodramatic makeup. Tonio becomes, in fact, the godlike author of it all: it’s he, at the end of Cavalleria, who hands the murder weapon to Alfio with dreamlike inevitability.

Give director Robin Guarino huge credit for such a novel approach to these familiar operas. It worked about 80 percent of the time, undermined by a tendency to push too far. For example: Canio, brilliantly sung and acted by John Mac Master, is dressed (as Pagliaccio) not as a clown but in a swallow-tail coat and top hat. During a scene with Nedda (Marie Plette, also very impressive), we see why she’s in a frilly red dress and blonde wig: so the two can briefly recall Mae West and W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee, a throwaway gag worth throwing out.

A too-solemn air informed much of the production: every movement had a heavy deliberation about it, turning a simple stage cross into a chore. Still, putting Pagliacci’s play-within-a-play within another play is a welcome conceit. Silvio, the villager with whom Nedda plans a getaway, wears Cavalleria green. His death – stabbed by Canio, but with another knife that Tonio provides – is observed by the villagers with horror because he’s one of them. That right there is enough to justify tying the two operas together in this way.

Putting Canio through an unnecessary beating from the villagers during Cavalleria is when the conceit goes too far. Not because of the violence – it’s just the distraction that’s unwelcome at that moment.

By the end of intermission, as the big sliding panels on each side of the theater’s walls glided to darken the screened-in windows, we had a sharper awareness of being in a theater watching a theatrical production. No “losing yourself” in this one.

Cavalleria rusticana
is intended to play on a classic stage setting: a wine shop to one side, a church on the other, a fundamental tug between the two the emotional core of the piece. With bleachers and stage lights the only setting, that dichotomy became confusingly abstract, and the beleaguered Santuzza seemed more unrooted than usual: it’s tough to suffer as a pariah when there’s no evidence of what you’ve been banned from.

As Santuzza and Turiddu, Eugenie Grunewald and Keith Ikaia-Purdy brought tremendous vocal and theatrical presence to the roles. Glimmerglass productions typically attract fine singers, but these were among the best. Turiddu’s final confrontation with Alfio, whose wife he’s messing around with, played with suitable menace, thanks in part to Brian Montgomery’s fine vocal work, and the death scene – foreshadowed at the beginning of Pagliacci, repeated as Cavalleria got under way – is played onstage, down center, with full Sweeney Todd-like bloodletting.

This production pulls the two operas into the 21st century and sets them on a course worth developing further. With a cast like this one, able to do full justice to the glorious scores, and more innovative staging, works like these will stay ever fresh.

Leoncavallo: Pagliacci (Libretto by Leoncavallo)

Marie Plette (soprano) - Nedda, John Mac Master (tenor) - Canio, Ned Barth (baritone) - Tonio, Ray Fellman (baritone) - Silvio, Nicholas Phan (tenor) - Beppe

Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana (Libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti & Guido Menasci)

Eugenie Grunewald (mezzo-soprano) - Santuzza, Keith Ikaia-Purdy (tenor) - Turiddu, Brian Montgomery (baritone) - Alfio, Josepha Gayer (mezzo-soprano) - Lucia, Heather Johnson (mezzo-soprano) - Lola

Glimmerglass Opera orchestra and chorus, Stewart Robertson (conductor), Robin Guarino (stage director)

Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, NY, 26 August 2002, 30 August 2002

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