Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci are not only a commonly coupled pair of operas but pretty much define the genre we call verismo. It’s a curious genre in a lot of ways. Musically it defines a style, brought to its highest state by Puccini, that is a sort of Fukuyama-esque “end of opera” after which everything is, for a section of the opera audience, modern, inaccessible and frightening. It’s also dramatically an attempt to get away from stories from myth and history and root the drama in “stories of everyday folk”. Which is fine, I suppose, if one believes the only things “everyday folk” care about are female constancy and the more pagan end of Catholicism for these stories tend to be a touch unsubtle; “she done him wrong so he killed her” (and her dog and he probably crashed her truck too). It’s actually quite ironic that Puccini, held up as the arch exponent of verismo, rarely actually goes down this path. Il Tabarro perhaps, maybe Suor Angelica, at a stretch Tosca but in large part his material is drawn from the usual well of opera plots. So Cav and Pag is interesting as almost pure verismo.
Damiano Michieletto’s 2015 production for Covent Garden doesn’t attempt to make of these pieces anything other than what they are. He gives them a rather drab 20th century setting reminiscent of the aesthetic of the “angry young men” of the 1950s, or perhaps, closer still, La Strada, and he takes them quite seriously. His Cavalleria Rusticana is the more straightforward of the two though he cleverly foreshadows elements of Pagliacci. It’s at the bakers in Cav that Nedda and Silvio meet and fall in love and the walls of the village are already postered with Pagliacci ads. There’s nothing “theoretical and symbolic” here. It’s straightforward narrative. Almost the only embellishment is that the overture is played over a tableau of the final scene with Turiddu dead in the village square. So Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Santuzza is drab and religiously tormented. Martina Belli is a rather seductive Lola. Alexandr Antonenko’s Turiddu is coarse and unsympathetic and Dmitri Platanias’ Alfio efficiently asserts himself as the local cock of the dung heap. A rotating set allows the action to move along efficiently and Antonio Pappano conducts honestly. He knows better than most that this is not especially sophisticated music and he doesn’t over elaborate. It’s all honest and straightforward and efficent. If blood and guts; dramatically and musically is your thing then it’s all there.
Pagliacci is actually quite a bit more complex though the basic themes are the same. The Prologue sets up an ambivalence between real life and the stage which is recapitulated (almost in reverse) in Vesti la giubba. Michieletto uses this idea quite cleverly in the second act where he uses the revolving stage to have the drama going on simultaneously on and off stage using doubles. Actually who is doing what when isn’t always easy to follow as it’s hard in the video to tell whether we are getting the same sight line as the in theatre audience. There’s some fine acting here, particularly by Carmen Giannattasio as Nedda, who presents very contrasting off stage and on stage personae. The same can be said for Antonenko’s Canio, easily slipping between the twin personalities of Canio and Pagliacci. Perhaps the most interesting character though is Tonio (Dmitri Platanias). He is the one pulling the strings whether ours (in the Prologue) or Canio’s as he exacts his revenge for being rebuffed by Nedda. Silvio (Dionysios Sorbis) is probably the only likeable character in either work and Sorbis is really quite engaging. Musically, once again Pappano is in his element.
Video direction is by Rhodri Huw and it’s pretty straightforward. The only time it gets a bit difficult is during Act 2 of Pagliacci and I think the ambiguity is deliberate and appropriate given what Michieletto is trying to do. On DVD picture and sound (DTS surround) are fine. Curiously the stereo option is Dolby rather than the usual uncompressed LPCM. The available Blu-ray has DTS-HD and uncompressed stereo and Dolby Atmos which I have never seen on an opera recording. It supports up to nine ear level speakers (plus sub-woofer) plus up to six ceiling or overhead speakers! If any reader has the gear to evaluate that I’d love to hear about it.
There are useful extras. There are interview based synopses of both works and an interesting piece with Pappano expounding on the music. There’s also a decent essay in the booklet on the origins and philosophy of verismo and their relationship to these works. Subtitle options are English, French, German , Japanese and Korean.
So, this is not really my thing but I do think these performances are an honest and largely successful representation of what Leoncavallo and Mascagni were trying to do. It’s not subtle and Pappano knows it and has the sense to work with that. The singing is rarely elegant or beautiful but it’s dramatic and quite engaging. Worth a look if verismo is your thing or if you want to explore its roots.