It’s been a long time since opera’s terrible twins were last seen together at this address, and even longer since any tenor was brave enough to do the double and sing in both of them. Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci were last performed together at the ROH in 1989, when the only thing the two operas had in common – apart from the-then chorus master Robin Stapleton’s insipid conducting – was the late, great Piero Cappuccilli singing both Alfio and Tonio. Well, that and, Franco Zeffirelli’s beautiful designs dating from 1959, Cav all bleached heat and a vast flight of cathedral steps in a dusty town square leading out to a distant orange grove, Pag an al fresco riot of colour perched on top of a hill. But you have to go back to February 1976 to find the last – and almost certainly first – time in the house’s history that any tenor had a crack at both Turiddu and Canio on the same evening: Placido Domingo, in a run of performances that had been intended to be the long-gestated return to the opera stage of Maria Callas, as Santuzza, after more than a decade in effective retirement. Well, she never materialised – we had ENO’s Pauline Tinsley instead – but Domingo certainly did. And it was once again Domingo who, in the twilight days of his existence as a tenor, returned to the house for a run of Pagliaccis – minus the Mascagni – in 2003, in a new and different Zeffirelli staging updated to the 1950s borrowed from Los Angeles, vast in scale but alas dramatically inert (and lumbered with Gheorghiu as a most simpering, woefully undersung Nedda).


So, at a time when opera houses the world over have all been keen to re-establish the terrible twins’ linked repertory status – high-profile, different, and in the event successful new productions in both New York and Salzburg have been staged and televised this year – Covent Garden has a lot riding on this, to put it mildly; and if Pappano was an ostensibly fail-safe choice of conductor, I can’t say that entrusting the stage direction to Damiano Michieletto – whose Guillaume Tell here a mere five months ago struck me as pretty much the nadir of dismal, ugly, irrelevant Regietheater ever seen in the house, richly meriting its rowdy reception – struck me as anything like a good idea, or even left me holding out any hope whatsoever for this double-bill. Well, you never can tell: and so much for the art of punting by theoretical form, because if the musical side of things looked formidable on paper, and the dramaturgical one decidedly iffy, in the event this performance upended expectations – at least mine, I suppose I should add – by turning out to be a quite wonderful, even at times revelatory, staging of both works, but one undermined by badly compromised musicianship, both conductorial and (especially) vocal. Truly, water does sometimes run uphill.


As with all latter-day pairings of these operas – premiered two years apart in 1890 and 1892 and never intended by either composer to be coupled, though they very rapidly were, to both composers’ chagrin – Damiano Michieletto, like David McVicar at the Met and Philipp Stölzl at the Grosses Festspielhaus, seeks to forge links between the two very different pieces (Zeffirelli of course staged them for maximum contrast). And as with the New York and Salzburg stagings, this is achieved primarily through their designs, with both pieces evidently taking place in the same village somewhere in the deep south of Italy (though in fact only Pagliacci is set in Calabria, supposedly in the late 1860s – i.e. just after Italian unification – whilst Cavalleria is set in Sicily in 1880). But whereas in McVicar’s production this takes the form of the same physical setting, dressed first in the C19th and then moving on to the 1950s, and Stölzl’s by the use of six – yes, six: count ‘em – different stages, three up, three down in both operas, with Cavalleria in grisaille monochrome and Pagliacci fairground fancy-dress, this new Michieletto show goes considerably further in the process by actively linking the personages of the two works together in numerous instances of what might be termed a better kind of operatic crossover.


Thus, in what can often seem an unconscionably over-extended musical opening for such a short work in which nothing much happens at great length, Cav’s leisurely composite prelude is here enlivened first by the striking tableau mourant of the very end of the opera, and then, effectively in flashback, by the depiction of everyday life in Mamma Lucia’s “Panificio” (a bakery, rather than the prescribed tavern) in which Silvio, Nedda’s lover from Pagliacci is working as an assistant, and first gets to meet Canio’s wife from the other opera who’s distributing flyers for her husband’s upcoming theatricals and supervising the pasting of “PAGLIACCI” posters on the bakery’s end wall (of the which, since like everything else in opera these days it’s set on a slow revolve, we get to see literally all sides of the architectural arrangement, indoors and out). It sounds complicated and contrary, but I have to say it works perfectly well, and doesn’t just register as a clever idea – which it is – but also fleshes out the next opera’s back-story, thus actually serving a clear theatrical purpose, whilst papering over some very thin patches in Mascagni’s dramaturgy. Who’d have thought? That I can’t pin down the period with any exactitude is presumably the directorial intention, since whilst the general dress code – costumes by Carla Teti – looks strictly neo-realist (we’re talking Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica here, ergo late 1940s/early 50s) there’s actually a satellite dish high up on the exterior wall – sets by Paolo Fantin – which suggests a rather different timeframe. No matter: the general mise-en-scène is so strong and expertly realised that the temporal ambiguity probably barely registers. And by the time we reach Mascagni’s celebrated Intermezzo, here staged as Mamma Lucia sobbing her heart out at her son Turiddu’s soon-to-be-fatal emotional entanglements, followed by Nedda and Silvio from Pagliacci getting very familiar indeed, the melding of the two pieces is more or less complete. You can raise all manner of objections to this, and in the normal run of events I myself probably would. But it is flawlessly judged and executed here, and to me makes perfect sense of both operas.


What lets the side down in this half of the evening is, alas, the singing. Eva-Maria Westbroek is vocally miscast as Santuzza, blowsy, squally, short-winded and even stretched beyond her powers at the top (and this in a role frequently taken by mezzos anyway). The fact that she is a touchingly sincere and convincing actress is, I’m afraid, neither here nor there in an opera house. She sounds more like a natural Mamma Lucia frankly, and I have no idea why either she, or opera house managements, think she is in any way suited to this repertory, lacking the requisite juice, warmth, fullness of phrase and length of breath to make it soar and sear, rather than squawk and spread. And with only a few reshuffled adjectives, much the same could be said of Aleksandrs Antonenko as Turiddu. This is not the kind of Italianate passion and squillo the role requires. Instead, we get a voice that sounds to me semi-permanently on the verge of cracking in alt (though there were only two, very small and swift ones in the event) quite without lyric warmth, reedy and sour-toned (some very approximate pitching on and off all night) and quite without the ability to fill a phrase to the full, all snatched-at high notes and ever-widening vibrato once up there. And unlike Westbroek, he’s a stilted and average actor. What should be an elemental dust-up between the two characters and the focus of the drama goes almost entirely AWOL here for want of the proper singers (you really should see what electricity Monastyrska and Kaufmann generated in Salzburg, enough to keep Upper Austria lit up for weeks).


So, in the absence of singers capable of fulfilling the demands of the two principal roles, disproportionate interest then attaches to those in the smaller ones: and though Dimitri Platanias sings Alfio with refinement and a beautifully well-knit voice, there’s not much bite to his baritone or anything like the requisite dramatic menace to make the role convincing. Which leaves, surely for the first time in its 100+ years’ history, a Cavalleria rusticana distinguished almost solely by its Lola and Mamma Lucia. Martina Belli nailed the former to perfection: but in truth, the single most affecting, effective and dominant performance of the entire work was that of Elena Zilio, whose age I am still residually gallant enough not to mention, but whose Mamma Lucia managed effortlessly to reorientate the whole piece around her, and the superbly sung, heart-stoppingly acted account she gives of the role. It is the single most remarkable performance of the whole evening, and worth the overinflated price of admission almost by itself.


Pagliacci is of course a much more sophisticated piece, with a strong vein of meta-theatricality that hugely influenced the Sicilian writer Luigi Pirandello, none of whose plays exploring the topic predate World War One. So to find rather more by way of directorial interventions and innovations in the staging of the piece than in the relatively straightforward narrative of the Mascagni should occasion no great surprise. Nor did I find any of them actually objectionable, though I’m not wholly convinced that revolving the scene away from the performance of the play-within-a-play commedia dell-arte (of which there is in any case no sign here, looking more like Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe brought to life, frock coats and all, than anything involving C18th clowns or masks) right after Arlecchino/Beppe’s little serenade is a good idea. Instead, we get to witness events thereafter as seen through an increasingly drunk and deranged Canio’s eyes, pursuing him all around the community centre in which the commedia is being performed, witnessing Nedda and Tonio emerging from the dressing room mirror backstage and tormenting him, hounding him through the gymnasium next door, finally revolving back to the auditorium where the audience is now itself all masked and staring at the “real” Canio downstage while his double goes through the musical motions mimetically up on the actual stage behind them. This is a tricky thing to bring off purely visually without specific support from the text (which of course isn’t there) but – like every aspect of this show – the execution is immaculate, and certainly works in its rather overambitious, hyperactive way (though presumably not for the lone booer who nearly bust a lung at the curtain call, and whose determination struck me as both unmerited and churlish. I booed the Guillaume Tell fit to bust, God knows, but that’s because it was abysmally dreadful, ugly and silly. This show is, happily, an entirely different proposition).


There is also a last, most unexpected, crossover link between the two operas in Pagliacci’s Intermezzo, as we revolve away from Canio’s dressing room after “Vesti la giubba” – in fact, no “vesti”, no “giubba”, no face paint, only a bottle and a lot of crashing around – to encounter Santuzza from Cavalleria (Westbroek herself) sobbing uncontrollably in the sports hall in the company of a not-notably sympathetic priest and then being comforted by a stoical Mamma Lucia (Zilio again) who brightens visibly when she realises as Santuzza presses her hand to her belly that there’s a grandson on the way. This ought to be seriously de trop and irrelevant, and in theory most certainly is: but all I can say is that I actually found myself in quite a state seeing it in practice.

Alas, Antonenko’s vocal shortcomings are no less evident here than in the Mascagni, with the additional grief occasioned by his quite terrible “maniacal” laughter in his aria, badly done beyond belief (if you can’t, for whatever reason, make an old-school interpolation like this work for you expressively, then don’t do it). The real saving grace in the Leoncavallo is Carmen Giannattasio’s Nedda, richly and firmly sung, and acted with passionate commitment, though “Stridono lassù”, with its extended parenthesis to the birds up above, makes for an odd outburst when set, as here, in the windowless indoors of a backstage dressing room (much tinkering with the surtitles hereabouts, by way of fudge). Platanias also “does the double” by singing Tonio, and I can’t help but feel that if the baritone and tenor do both operas, then so should the lead female, particularly in such an unprecedentedly closely interwoven staging such as this. In any case, though his suave vocalism is always appreciable – as it was in Salzburg where his Prologue brought the house down – there’s nothing much in Platanias’ elegant vocalism to suggest the “lurido, difforme” and very nasty character he’s singing (naturally, in a politically correct age, the hump has gone, to be replaced by a walking stick. Hmm. It’ll be raffish Rigolettos next).


I didn’t care for Dionysios Sourbis’ Silvio at all, dry-toned and with goat-bleat vibrato which some like, some affect not to notice, but which drives me up the wall (I have exactly the same problem with Calleja, for the same reason). But Benjamin Hulett struck me as an exemplary Beppe, sweet-toned and effortless, easily the best since Francis Egerton, who sang the role time out of mind in the old Zeffirelli staging. The much-augmented chorus sang with plenty of solid tone and entered into the theatrical proceedings of which they form such a part with great zest: but their ensemble was frequently precarious, and this brings me to the evening’s other big surprise: the generally ragged ensemble secured by Pappano, whose 2003 Pagliaccis here were similarly afflicted, alas, and the very stop/start, rag-tag nature of his conducting, all breathless climax and coma with little intervening poise or balance, and practically no continuous sense of line or unfolding drama. Of the kind of all-engulfing passion and power Fabio Luisi and the incomparable Met orchestra brought to both scores earlier this year there was barely a trace here, I’m afraid, though it was decent enough in a piecemeal and improvisatory way.


The net result of all this is that I found myself, to my intense surprise, really actively liking Michieletto’s productions (the Stölzl’s at Salzburg play similarly fast-and-loose at times – Santuzza and Turiddu live together and have a ten-year-old son – but are equally similarly riveting to watch and, technically complex as both these shows are, faultlessly realised) but also disliking most of the principal singing and much of the conducting. The one upside to this state of affairs is that sooner or later they’ll get the musical side of things right, at which point they’ll have an unequivocal success on their hands (I’m sure Kaufmann was supposed to be doing Canio, which is why he was scheduled for two rump Carmens during the rehearsal period, which of course he then never sang either; and I know that Garanca was originally meant to sing Santuzza, because she told me so herself. What a difference that would have made!).

Anyway, I can’t with good conscience give a rating that just averages it all out, not least because it would be unfair on the one thing I’m usually hardest on. So, as I’ve occasionally had to do before, albeit invariably the other way round, it’s

Staging: 4½*

Singing/conducting: 2½*

Stephen Jay-Taylor©2015

(Photos : Catherine Ashmore)