This dual production of the verismo twins is a strange marriage of directorial talent with megalomania … with much excellent singing shining through. The McVicar productions will be controversial which probably suits The Met despite any insult to the art. And the second opera IS an insult - from start to finish. Pagliacci is a masterpiece, the composer himself a poet, carefully writing each line of the libretto in the marvellous drama which moves relentlessly towards theatrical tragedy by way of a play within a play. The play itself has some ‘Punchinello’ slapstick yet the director expands this to the entire opera starting unforgivably half way through the Prologue, ‘Si puo?’ a baritone showpiece for good reason.
In the busy and cluttered production of Pagliacci there are dozens of examples of hilarious and well rehearsed side-shows by acrobats, actors and vaudevillians. Much of this distracts and thus detracts from what is happening centre-stage in the vocal drama we paid to see and hear. The above example yields laughter from the audience during the Prologue over some shenanigans with a microphone cord stuck in Tonio’s groin, pulling three goofy assistants out of the wings, all to great hilarity. The words of the Prologue compare life in the theatre with the real world and that the actors real and vulnerable people. The ‘three stoogers’ are brilliant vaudeville actors, yet they are greatly overused to my mind.
Another example is ‘clever’ but distracting, being Taddeo (Tonio’s) sudden appearance providing an alibi to Pagliaccio (Canio) for Colombina (Nedda) having set two places at table. Traditionally this is sung as a terrified stammer ‘credetela’ (‘believe her!’) but McVicar has Tonio sing from the deep freeze cabinet as if he were shivering - ice and vapour for added realism as the door is opened to reveal the hidden witness. The humour spoils the lines to my mind and does nothing but draw attention to Mr McVicar and away from Leoncavallo’s drama.
Half way through Canio’s famous aria ‘Vesti la giubba’ the curtain mysteriously drops, breaking the continuity to some extent. Mr Alvarez then continues the aria while stage noise can be heard behind, yet again distracting from what should be a magnificent set piece for the tenor. Another unforgivable concession to stage pragmatism by Mr McVicar who is starting to get on my nerves.
The noise of a truck’s starter-motor, especially a faulty one, is an ugly and unnecessary start to an opera, despite it being novel, funny and unexpected. It is witless.
Taddeo arrives in the play with a toy chicken (as required in the libretto - all of McVicar’s devices, however stupid, seem to come from the book) but he then uses the puppet as a TV character ventriloquist. Nedda pokes the same springy toy into a saucepan and puts it on the stove as the attendant ‘three stoogers’ clown with a bowl of whipped cream which ends up on several faces. Even the cooked chicken comes to life again on the dinner table - but does this hilarious gag add?
Modern Met productions really require two reviews, one for the opera in the theatre and another for Live-HD cinema broadcast as they are significantly different experiences. I can only comment on the theater experience after attending the twin operas (twice) live.
To state the obvious, only the theatre audience will hear the actual live voices of the singers and direct orchestral sound unaltered by technology. Thus voice size is less relevant to the cinema audience. Likewise the appearance of revolving scenery and also mishaps … I was told that with a very short delay the live transmission can be switched to the previously recorded ‘rehearsal’ as a back-up in case of stage or technical problems. I was not told how often this is done in practice but it would seem like a useful strategy to avoid disappointing a huge paying audience around the world (only countries near Australia’s longitude do NOT receive the broadcasts direct due to the inclement hour of night).
Like the Lepage Ring, these operas, with all their faults, fulfil the Met's need for something completely different yet maintaining the realism demanded by a conservative New York audience. On the same open, dark-walled set, the operas make a stark contrast from each other.
Unlike the bright and busy Paglicci production, the first opera Cavalleria Rusticana is mostly dark and tranquil with the intense emotion depending on the musical/vocal components. It commences with a huge ring of black chairs and a tasteful slow circuit of the stage revolve finds us virtually meeting each villager … a very Southern Italian thing to do. Then very soon, like a child with a new toy, the director over-uses the stage revolve to the extent that I was positively vertiginous by the end of Pagliacci from the never-ending stage circles, both ways, fast and slow, most to no particularly dramatic point. Most ridiculous was to see the entire chorus of over fifty singers in the first opera all gradually jerk themselves one way while the stage revolve goes the other, leaving them all in the same positions. As a final insult just as the dramatic ‘La comedia e finita’ was announced the revolve went into full speed. Presumably this was to present the empty side of the stage for the curtain calls … yet this could have been achieved without interrupting the opera’s dramatic ending. I was intrigued that amid all the realistic attributes, candles, veils, wine jugs, fruit and vegetables, etc in Cavalleria Rusticana there was an odd mechanical refectory table with visible hydraulic expandable supports yet also with chunky wooden false legs. One allows artistic licence but the one day of the year when village markets in Italy probably did not function was Easter Day.
To give credit where it is due, the performance of Cavalleria Rusticana was both menacing and meaningful. The singing was excellent … from the off-stage Siciliana to the shriek at the end announcing the death of Turridu. Mr Alvarez played both tenor roles brilliantly while George Gagnidze played both Tonio and Alfio with equal effect. Patricia Racette played Nedda both excellent in voice and as a sexy singing actress. Santuzza was played solidly by Eva-Maria Westbroek. Lola with the unlikely name of Ginger Costa-Jackson was born in Sicily and may have been the only cast member with genetic and cultural connections to the stories. The minor roles were also all well acquitted. Silvio (Lucas Meachem) and Nedda had a long section of their duet restored … and charmingly sung by both.
By the modern vogue, ‘things’ happen on stage during each of the orchestral interludes … except for the Pagliacci intermezzo which then paradoxically is followed by a long pause, presumably for set changes. The Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana is one of the greatest operatic orchestral pieces ever written. How bizarre then that a director would feel the need to deflect attention from it. Would he put some stage miscellany on stage during a Beethoven symphony or Bach cantata? Maybe he would!