Ménage à trois proclaims the theme for this double bill and in a refreshing change to the inevitable Cav & Pag, the Teatro Massimo in Palermo plumped to pair Mascagni’s sordid slice of Sicilian life with Second Republic Paris in the form of Adolphe Adam’s charming opéra comique, Le Toréador. If Adam is probably only known to ballet audiences in the form of Giselle and Le Corsaire, his opéra comiques show a fine lyrical composer who proclaimed that his only ambition “is to write music that is transparent, easy to understand and amusing to the public”. The score of Le Toréador may not be the deepest of music but it serves its purpose. First performed in 1849, the royalties from this popular piece, which remained in the Comique’s repertoire from 1849 until 1869, would have helped pay for the composer’s substantial debts incurred by the failure of the Opéra-National the previous year.
The two acts run for less than an hour and a half with very little in the way of action. Coraline, a former singer, is married to a retired toreador, Belflor, who is engaged in numerous dalliances. A former colleague of Coraline, the flautist Tracolin, arrives in Barcelona set on wooing her. Belflor is eventually trapped into accepting Tracolin as a live-in guest, guaranteeing that the old man will remain faithful, though Coraline is sure to enjoy having the young man at her call. It’s all just a little salacious and naughty but with some pleasant melodies.
For such a basic plot, the period-look production, directed by Marina Bianchi, sadly became overly fussy, filling out the stage with superfluous mimed characters, including a couple of ballet dancers who would show up in any moment that did not involve the singers. The lack of real drama in the plot seems to have misled Bianchi into filling space unnecessarily, as if the audience’s attention would be unable to play along, to the point that the entire story became about convenienze teatrali, the domestic setting being removed and relocated to a dressing room within an opera house, with much coming and going from orchestral members and assorted actors. It wore thin quickly and was neither fish nor fowl, neither a detailed traditional production nor a particularly clever updating of the story. Characters walked through doors just for the sake of having something to do rather than engaging with each other and telling a story.
Cavalleria rusticana was likewise period-looking, based on designs for the opera by Renato Guttoso, completed in the 1970s. Generally more successful than the opening opera, being realistically drab, decayed and despondent, we still had to witness the superfluous dancers but the production was a safe choice to make and it made for pleasant viewing. The only grating moments were the instant cut to dark purple lighting after Santuzza curses Turridu, and the stage direction that Turridu sings his opening ballad ‘behind the curtain’ was translated as ‘behind a thin gauze that may as well not have been there for all the difference it made to the singer’s volume’.
The overture to Le Toréador, a felicitous mix of Mozart and Rossini, bustled along after some opening mushiness from the strings but they settled quickly. The orchestra under Steffano Ranzani played securely, if without a lightness of touch that would have made the opening part of the evening more like an aural French soufflé rather than Sicilian cassata. They played particularly well in the moment Caroline reads the letter that has fallen out of Belflor’s coat only to discover that it is a love letter that she herself had written to Tracolin, the orchestra adding a sinuous slinkiness to a moment that confuses both husband and wife. As the plot relies on Tracolin being a flautist, orchestra member Antonino Saldino was brought onstage regularly and played neatly, especially in the virtuosic flurry written for ‘Ah vous dirai-je maman’. The orchestra felt more comfortable playing in Cavalleria rusticana and its more familiar territory, with full-blooded fortissimi in the introduction, a fine rendition of the Intermezzo, skitterish strings in ‘Mamma, quel vino è generoso’ ending in a vengeful denouement that was rather let down by the reappearance of the ballerina who ran to a chair, and sat there shaking.
The chorus, used in Le Toréador as characters, has some recompense with the Easter Hymn which was clearly set up in this production as a set piece, singers lining up in position to sing out at the audience. This was their moment and they were going to give it their all, come hell or high water. They made a harmonious whole during the performance, though their direction was old-fashioned, the banter of “A casa, a casa” being oddly static and like Ventre, exuded little fizz in “Viva il vino spumeggiante”.
With two very different sets of soloists for the operas, there were some good moments but we had to wait for the second half of the performance before things really warmed up. As the good-natured and flirtatious Coraline, Laura Giordano was visually the part, with a coquettish air that gave high hopes that were not entirely realised in the event. Her opening couplets started well, though could have done with more playful sobbing in the second verse repetitions. Apparently it was a conscious decision not to emulate or imitate the ornamentation used by Sumi Jo in her recording but this left the jaw-droppingly over-the-top variations of “Ah vous dirai-je maman” (“Twinkle, twinkle, little star” to the likes of me) feeling robotic and not a guiltily enjoyable bit of canary fancying. The tempo chosen was about a third slower than other renditions and took any vitality out of the piece. Giordano sang the notes correctly but the coloratura felt too strained, not at all exciting considering the plethora of top Cs and Ds required. She sounded more comfortable when holding a delicate mid-range vocal line, nicely displayed in her Act 2 aria. The audience itself held no such reserve, being affectionately biased towards a local lass, making clear its approval at the end of the piece, despite some uncalled for booing, and the local dandies showered her with roses and petals from the side of the stage during her curtain call.
As her love interest Tracolin, Christopher Magiera is in transition away from the baritone roles he has sung, such as Don Giovanni and Conte Almaviva, and I wish him well in his ongoing training. At present his voice is a tad underpowered, often being drowned out by the orchestra and “Vous connaissez les femmes” lacked limpid control of the upper register. However the final held top note of “Dans une symphonie” showed promising future potential.
Ugo Guagliardo as the cheating but soon to be cuckolded husband gave a very Italianate performance, perhaps more suited to a Donizetti comedy, with his grasp of the rapid passages in “Vive la bouteille” being slightly too staccato and prone to a couple of timing issues.
As with the orchestral playing, Cavalleria rusticana saw the cast in more comfortable repertoire. Luciana D’Intino gave a convincing portrayal of the betrayed Santuzza, standing out as the voice of experience amongst the cast. With a strong chest voice, her projection of ‘io piango’ during “Voi lo sapete” was most impressive. There was warmth in tone across her range and during the Easter Hymn she showed the pain etched in the penitent’s face, accompanied with clear notes cutting over the rest of the ensemble.
As the Turiddu, Carlo Ventre sang securely but his was a rather one-dimensional portrayal with unrelenting volume and a “Viva il vino spumeggiante” that was decidedly lacking in fizz. If the portrayal was unsubtle, there was a decent hint of a selfish, sadistic side to his treatment of Santuzza, lessening one’s sympathy for his ignoble end.
Like Guagliardi, Alberto Mastromarino seemed to have issues with timing and was far too reliant on turning to the conductor to find the beat. He gave Alfio a suitably bluff personality in “Il cavallo scalpita” but the voice was thin in places.
A run of the mill Cavalleria and a somewhat dull Le Toréador that will do little to convince other companies to move away from the interminably easy combination of Cav & Pag. Isn’t that right, Royal Opera House?