Try-hard maths: two into one

CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA/PAGLIACCI

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Wednesday May 10

                         Cavalleria Rusticana

At first glance, this looks like a cost-cutting exercise – having these two often-paired contemporaneously-composed operas set in the same locale, so that the subtle distinctions between Mascagni’s representation of Sicily and Leoncavallo’s deep-south Calabrian village are fused.   You can economise on sets, costumes and, in some cases, singers.   But the bare-bones production look of both operas, particularly Cavalleria Rusticana, is deceptive and, thanks to the State Theatre’s revolving-stage mechanism, each opera has a variety in its presentation, even if some of the director’s staged events are cringe-making.

But what and how an opera is acted out has taken on undue prominence these days; what really matters is the music and how the company copes with it.  Luckily, Opera Australia has some fine artists at work here, with not really any unsatisfactory principals, even if their ardour was rarely matched by a full body of choristers.

The Mascagni piece enjoys a welter of fine melodies, beginning with Turiddu’s offstage siciliana that in this instance brought Diego Torre’s hefty tenor into play well before he actually showed up in person.  Dragana Radakovic’s first appearance as Santuzza showed a singer hard at work but getting very little across the pit, up to the fourth scene’s Romance, Voi lo sapete, o mamma, where the soprano moved into high gear with a driving force that continued throughout her confrontations with both Turiddu and Alfio.

Santuzza, in fact, carries the action and is a continuous presence.  Dominica Matthews sang Mamma Lucia, who spends most of her time reacting to others in dumb-play with some inane recitative.   None of this challenged the singer who went through the expected motions required of an overwrought mother of a wastrel son.  The other female principal, Sian Pendry’s Lola, produced a fair off-stage Fior di giaggiolo and played up to Torre fetchingly in the Brindisi scene.  As the most (only?) attractive woman on-stage, she exhibited the requisite relish for attention but, as so often happens with Lola, she is hard-pressed to make any vocal impression, even in her nasty dialogue with Santuzza.

Torre maintained a striking vocal presence through the opera’s second half, matching Radakovic’s vehemence in their confrontation, playing an effective lad-about-the-village in the catchy Viva il vino spumeggiante, playing efficiently for undeserved sympathy in the remarkable Mamma –  quel vino e generoso aria with its move from hectic, subdued excitement to valedictory lyricism: for me, the work’s finest moment.  The only problem with this Turiddu was the one-dimensional attack, which was rarely less than full-throttle; as a result, the young man presented as an intransigent ne’er-do-well, with whose fate it was hard to feel much sympathy.

Having less to work with, Jose Carbo took this night’s honours as Alfio, bringing some much-appreciated vitality to the opera through his Il cavallo scalpita self-introductory bragging – an aria that puts a bass through his paces with several top E flats and a pair of taxing F sharps.  As with Matthews, most of his vocal work is confined to recitative, yet Carbo built a firmly-etched personality in the short scene of Santuzza’s betrayal, finishing with a convincing Infami loro quatrain, then offering a self-composed balance with Turiddu’s  self-recriminations in the duel challenge.

Andrea Licata conducted, giving full weight to the score’s mellifluous arches of melody and bringing out a steady response from Orchestra Victoria.  The ensemble’s place to shine, the well-loved Intermezzo, passed along well enough, although the pit’s tinny organ substitute dimmed the piece’s timbral lustre more than a little.   In the opening pages, the Opera Australia Chorus sounded lively enough, even if the male voices dominated; but the performance pace slipped to dragging for the Ineggiamo procession.

Director Damiano Michieletto updated both operas to the 1980s, which presents no problem as long as you subscribe to the theory that nothing has changed in the social life of Italy’s poorest region over a century.  The Prelude is played out over a tableau, the villagers all gathered around the dead body of Turiddu; the stage unfreezes and the opera’s action begins.  Much of it involves a bakery, staffed by two men, one of whom I think was Samuel Dundas, who turned up in the same clothes as Silvio for the Leoncavallo opera.  The impression is of a clean but run-down community; Dundas’s yellow t-shirt is a colour highlight, Lola goes in for seductress black, Alfio sports a spivvish orange-brown suit, but the main impression is of soul-quelling dowdiness.

Then the producer has introduced a few oddities.  Why the statue of the Virgin in procession comes to life to make imprecatory gestures to Santuzza strikes me as unnecessary theatrical padding.   Updating Alfio to a car-driving purveyor of women’s gear would be fine, except for the self-identifying text he has to sing.  Also, it’s working against the placid rest from action that the Intermezzo gives us to have Yellow-T-Shirt and a passing girl carry on a little gauche flirtation; that kind of interpolation strikes me as indicative of a belief that, if nothing is happening on stage, then the audience is bound to be bored.  Maybe, but I think that people who can’t just listen to a master-stroke for three minutes should stay at home with their play-stations.

During the work’s progress, someone puts up posters advertising the coming appearance of Pagliacci in the village’s theatre; so we know what’s coming, I suppose.   Still, you’d have to be pretty thick not to be aware of what’s on the other side of interval.

In the second opera, Torre plays and sings Canio with impressive dedication.   This character is a tenor’s delight, revealing himself on every page in every line.  The role’s high-point, Vesti la giubba at the end of Act 1, was a minor triumph with the tenor making every point a winner and giving a vital counterbalancing picture to the jealous brute who is the outward manifestation of the troupe’s leader.   But Torre made his mark at the beginning with a gripping Un tal gioco where he prefigures what would happen if he found his wife Nedda had taken a lover: a fine crescendo of barely-suppressed rage and violence, shrugged off at the end of this solo in a most non-persuasive show of benignity.

At the work’s climax – the entertainment that the strolling players are providing for the villagers – Torre displayed a vocal and emotional command right from his appearance as Pagliaccio, Nome di Dio!   As the scene moved forward and the actor’s self-control deserted him, the tenor gave a gripping realization of Canio’s move into homicidal anger, thus bringing the opera full circle: we were warned what would happen, and it did.

Carbo also performed in the second work, this time as Tonio who enjoys the inestimable gift of Leoncavallo’s wide-ranging prologue, Si puo?  This could have been a fine experience but the baritone was hampered by Licata’s leaden-footed tempo.  Better followed in the Nedda-Tonio scene, Carbo making an excellent self-apologia in the So ben che difforme solo, loaded with self-pity but showing his unhappiness and longing with a rich sound-colour and something approaching dignity before he throws it all to the winds and assaults the disdaining object of his love/lust.

Anna Princeva, the production’s Nedda,  opened with a fine study in contrasts, from her fear of Canio in Qual fiamma avea nel guardo! to the extended flight of fancy where she identifies herself with passing birds, Oh! che volo d’augelli.   This soprano possesses a crisp, bright quality, very accurate in delivery and manipulating her line’s phrasing with admirable flexibility.  To her credit (and that of her colleague), the love duet for once didn’t pall, in large part due to the sprightly nature of her vocal attack and the mobility she demonstrated in segments like Non mi tentar! and the ravishing Nulla scorda! sestet.

Dundas, in a windcheater over the previous opera’s t-shirt/jeans outfit, sang an assertive Silvio, the young lover who has no solo but must delineate himself in his love-duet with Nedda.   Where Carbo suffered from the slow pit pace, this baritone had to work with direction that had him jumping around the stage like a pre-match athlete from an American university, his physical restlessness detracting from the longing and desperate pleas that make up the greater part of his work.

John Longmuir sang Beppe, the general hand/actor whose only chance to shine comes in the play-scene where he acts the 11 lines’ worth of Arlecchino and rarely gets noticed because of the crisis that looms throughout this Commedia scene.

For this opera, the chorus showed a good deal more vocal energy; but then, the demands placed on them are greater – from the opening frenzied excitement, through the Vespers chorus, to the play-within-a-play’s disastrous progress.  Licata’s orchestra appeared un-pressurized, but the great surges of vitality in the work’s middle pages came over efficiently.

Michieletto raised these eyebrows again with his Pagliacci.   For the interlude between the acts, he has Santuzza onstage receiving post-Confession absolution from the priest who led the Easter procession.  She meets Mamma Lucia and demonstrates that she is pregnant; the two go off arm-in-arm.  Some might consider this elevating; I think it’s bordering on ridiculous.   Still, it’s part of the intention of having the two operas cross-fertilise each-other . . . perhaps that clause is unfortunate.   Of more interest is the strange scene concurrent with the presentation to the village in which Canio hallucinates that he sees Nedda  being unfaithful to him – a vision that leads him into his murderous dementia.

A slight problem is one that bedevils every Pagliacci.  Canio catches Nedda embracing Silvio, but the lover escapes without Canio being able to recognize him.  It’s generally a clumsy piece of staging – how can the clown not see his wife’s lover? – and this particular effort is reliant on Canio being pretty myopic . . . or possibly he can’t identify yellow.

Also, as usual, the Leoncavallo work engages an audience more immediately than its Mascagni companion; the drama is more taut, the characters’ motivations more clear-cut, the score more energetic.   But the joint productions’ attempts to bleed one piece of verismo into the other are marginally successful, it seems to me.   If the musical content is taken as the dominant guide in approaching each work, then their internal differences argue for treating each work as a discrete construct, rather than supporting an attempt to push them into the same space.

Further performances will take place at 7:30 pm on Saturday May 13, Monday May 15, Wednesday May 17, and at 1 pm on Saturday May 20.