Mascagni – Cavalleria Rusticana; Leoncavallo – I Pagliacci

ONP Bastille, Wednesday May 2 2012

Conductor: Daniel Oren. Production: Giancarlo Del Monaco. Santuzza: Violeta Urmana. Turiddu: Marcello Giordani. Lucia: Stefania Toczyska. Alfio: Franck Ferrari. Lola: Nicole Piccolomini. Nedda: Brigitta Kele. Canio: Vladimir Galuzin. Tonio: Sergey Murzaev. Beppe: Florian Laconi. Silvio: Tassis Christoyannis. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris, ONP and Hauts de Seine children's choruses.

If anyone reads these reports, they may recall I recently referred to Nicolas Joël’s (current) time at the ONP as “misery”. His defenders, however, say he is expanding the Paris repertoire and bringing us better casts. Believe it or not, this production of the famous “Cav and Pag” double bill marks Cavalleria Rusticana’s debut at the Opéra National, so the first claim is vindicated, though I can’t say, personally, that the scheduling of Mireille, or Mascagni’s work or, next season, La Gioconda, does much for me. But at last, also – and I’ll repeat “for me”, as I may have missed other examples, having skipped one or two productions in recent seasons – it bore out the second. A great evening of full-voiced Italian opera is a rare treat nowadays, even if, looking a gift horse in the mouth, I might have preferred other, more satisfactory works, especially than “Cav”.

The production was more solid than earth-shattering, in handsome sets and costumes. It opened with the arrival through the house, lights up, of Tonio, un-made-up and in mufti, for the prologue to Pagliacci. Sergei Murzaev’s resounding baritone set a high standard for the evening, ringing out in a way rarely heard in the Bastille’s cavernous void. He was new to me, but I see Joël has employed him regularly in productions I didn’t buy, such as Andrea Chénier or the revival of Verdi’s Otello. He hung his coat on a coat-stand and left, and we switched to the Mascagni.

The setting wasn’t the usual ochre-coloured village but a white marble quarry with large, rectangular blocks sloping up towards the right (where we supposed the church was, offstage) and forming multiple terraces, niches, nooks and crannies, with a few wooden stairs and a plank or two, for the action. Everyone was in black against a plain sky, shading from pale grey to gorge de pigeon, except for a procession of penitents, lashing themselves (wimpishly), in white. The women had their heads covered, like nuns; the men had flat caps or, more sparsely, nifty little sombreros, and black jackboots. The effect was graphic and sober. The acting was conventional but, as I said, solid; it ended with Turiddu spread-eagled, dead, on one of the slabs of stone.

As Santuzza, Violeta Urmana seemed simply to have found the role of her lifetime: never have I heard her quite so convincing in soprano roles before. Marcello Giordani is the raging bull or battering ram sort of tenor, not to everyone’s taste: “Hated Giordani: no style just bellow”, wrote a friend the next day. It’s true he charged into the part and seemed perilously close to singing out of tune, but I always give extra marks for commitment and more again for audibility, not to say sheer volume, and I was thankful that in a work that, though so short, seems so interminable, the set was so good-looking and the singing so exciting. Otherwise it would have dragged on forever.

Opening with the Pagliacci prologue was a first attempt at unifying the two works. After the interval, to make a fleeting link between them and set the “theatre-within-theatre” scene, as the red “circus” curtain rose we saw the still spread-eagled Turiddu hauled off on his slab in a puff of exhaust fumes by an ancient truck or tractor. There was otherwise no visual unity between the two pieces as we now had two gigantic, black and white Italian film stills (Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, I was usefully informed by my neighbour), set at angles and framed with light bulbs, and the travelling players’ dilapidated lorry with its stage-within-the-stage, also framed with bulbs, on the back. The costumes were 50s Italian in shades of grey and the chorus, handled less stiffly than in “Cav”, brought their own crates, benches or stools to sit on.

Murzaev I've already dealt with; apart from his resounding singing, he made a marvellously sinister Tonio. Galuzin, who is as we know a great singing actor with a voice that somehow sounds like a baritone at tenor pitch (rather like Kaufmann in that respect, come to think of it), dark, not bright in timbre, was like a great bronze bell, tolling mournfully. His big number was, naturally, a highlight of the evening, before a dénouement of unusual dramatic realism, power and conviction.

The great discovery of this production was Brigitta Kele, a name that from now on I'll be looking out for. She had evident, easy stage presence, personality, voice... It's only a pity that her big "bird" aria is such a trashy, weak point in the work. The supporting cast, in both pieces, was strong, Florian Laconi in particular: his "O Colombina" serenade was beautifully nuanced.

How do you say "Schmaltz" in Italian. "Morbidezza"? The orchestra and chorus under Daniel Oren seemed (like the production) relatively dry and stiff and short on the necessary Schmaltz/morbidezza in "Cav", but livened and Schmaltzed and morbidezza-ed up considerably for "Pag", ending a very (and I must admit, unexpectedly) satisfactory evening in a blaze of glory.


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