Richard, Barbara, and I saw this double bill at the Met on 4/21. *Cavalleria Rusticana* (“rustic chivalry”) is an opera by Mascagni, *I Pagliacci* (“the clowns”) is by Leoncavallo, both written in the 1890s. They’re nearly always performed together. The program notes said that they signaled a shift in opera - - up to that point, operas had noble characters suffering nobly, and these two operas were about common people in coarse and/or violent situations. Not exactly the whole story - - Violetta is a hooker, and everyone in *Carmen* is working class or on a lower rung of the ladder. I think the difference is in the music. *Traviata* and *Carmen* have music that’s more elegant, and structured in a classic opera format. *Cav* and *Pag* (as the cognoscenti calls them) have a few arias there, but the music has more drive, it’s more base and visceral.
The leads in *Cavalleria* were played by Eva-Maria Westbroek, Marcello Alvarez, and George Gagnidze. I guess I have a thing for Westbroek, I’ve seen all four shows she’s done at the Met - - *Walküre*, *Francesca da Rimini*, *Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk*, and now this one. She has a gorgeous voice, she’s a wonderful musician, and she gives a great performance. What more do ya want? Also she’s a gorgeous blonde, and she’s Dutch! This girl is one-stop shopping. Next season she’s doing *Tannhäuser*, I’m already looking forward to that.
I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Alvarez a few times, in *Un Ballo in Maschera* and *Trovatore*. Both operas had more interesting singers in the other roles, so I’m not exactly sure it was him I heard. He has a nice voice, sings with style, and delivers a good performance. He doesn’t really tear the joint apart in any department, but he does a good job. B+.
Gagnidze is marvelous, a juicy voice and lots of Italian style. Not the best looking guy or the most thrilling performer onstage, but he acts with his voice, which is what we’re after. The orchestra was a dream, especially in *Cavalleria*. The intermezzo was ravishing - - it had the lush, satiny sound of the Percy Faith Strings. In my book, there is no higher praise.
The production was generally very strong. The director is David McVicar, who did such a strong job with *Il Trovatore*, *Anna Bolena*, and *Maria Stuarda*. He’s imaginative but still somewhat conservative, which is a great balance for the Met. He puts the show on the stage and doesn’t get in the way. Best of all, his productions are straightforward, so you can plug in whatever singer happens to be in town, and he/she will give a strong performance and not need six weeks of rehearsal to know what the hell is going on. He did a great job of expressing the oppressive community in which the opera is set.
The problem was the turntable. It’s the biggest turntable I ever saw, it practically takes up the entire stage. He put a big square platform in the middle of it, and the turntable turned around now and then to give the illusion of movement, or a change in location, or time passing, or what have you. The Easter processional (“Inneggiamo”) is a high point in the score, and was given a head-shakingly idiotic staging. The chorus came on with a Jesus statue on a litter and a Blessed Virgin Mary statue on a litter in front of it. They started the number, and the turntable started spinning slowly. The chorus walked en masse, but they moved in a way that made it look like they were walking in place. Can you picture it? The turntable moved around, the chorus shuffled around slowly, but in spite of all their movement, they never actually got anywhere. What was the point of that. Here’s my solution: save the money, lose the turntable, and have the chorus process around the stage. This is the way they do it on Easter on my street, and that’s good enough for me. Plus the Met stage is so huge, they’d have walked six city blocks by the time the number was over. Think of it: they’d be doing a performance AND getting a little cardio.
*I Pagliacci* was more entertaining, mostly because the opera itself is more entertaining - - it’s about show business! A group of clowns arrive in a town and put on a show. The leading lady is stepping out on her husband, the leading man, and it leads to jealous rage and a double murder.
Alvarez was in the tenor lead again, and he was more impressive in this part. He has one of the most famous arias in opera, “Vesti la giubba”, which was immortalized as “No more Rice Crispies!” in a commercial from the 70s. Alvarez sang it with power and pathos (the aria, not the commercial), it was his best work of the evening. I could still ask for more - - my dream would be Jonas Kaufmann in the part, but he can’t do everything, can he? Gagnidze sang the prologue (another highlight of the score) and played one of the supporting roles. He was marvelous.
The best performance of the show was by Patricia Racette as the tenor’s wife, the leading lady of the troupe. I’ve heard her many, many times - - I bet I’ve heard her in close to fifteen roles, and she’s been brilliant every time. She’s made a specialty of Puccini, who was a contemporary of Leoncavallo, so it’s no surprise that she would do a great job in this role. My favorite moment in the show was one of those rare combinations of performer, staging, costume, situation, and music. They’re about to start the show, meaning the opera in the opera. There’s an opening number with the leading lady and two or three of the supporting performers. McVicar staged this with Racette dressed in drag, as a clown, then at the end of her number her wig and costume were torn away to reveal her gorgeous self in a sexy dress. You know how I love an onstage split-second costume change, but the real thrill was seeing Racette do a straight-from-vaudeville song and dance routine in clown drag! It was maybe only one or two minutes, but it was stunning. She is a total pro, I adore her.