Sunday, March 13, 2016

The rivals

Cavalleria Rusticana
Pagliacci - Metropolitan Opera, 2/6/2016
Urmana, Costa-Jackson, Lee, Maestri / Luisi
Frittoli, Berti, Gagnidze, Lavrov, Stevenson / Luisi

This David McVicar production, the under-recognized success of last season, returned with some cast changes in 2016. In its original run, George Gagnidze sang both baritone leads and Marcelo Alvarez sang both tenor leads, which was a neat but unrevealing stunt. Here there was no duplication, just two groups singing to strong effect.

McVicar's Cav is revelatory from its very start. The circle of chairs that form the initial scene suggest, as no literal staging has done, the mutual examination and ever-imminent rivalries of a one-square town. Everyone snoops, everyone is jealous... until the circle dissolves into daily bustle. Eventually the dangerous all-human circle is transformed in the Easter service into a pure, singing whole: the adoring ordered ranks facing the divine sign before them (in joy) instead of each other (in potential rivalry). But the fallen girl Santuzza's (self?) exclusion holds the tension of the setup just outside the church, and as she's reabsorbed into the scene it forms, in Mama Lucia's tavern, into small groups with that original danger now again close. And, rivalry now enflamed by Santuzza (carrying out her own, non-face-to-face rivalry with the walk-on Lola), the men circle again as Turridu's group faces Alfio's before their offstage duel.

The crowd shapes, all by themselves, reflect at every point the tension of the tale, and McVicar's minimalization of other visual elements (including the color palette) give this part of the double-bill a primal character.

The latter part - Pag - is quite different in style, and the meaning of the shift didn't become clear to me in the show's original run last season. In this revival, absent cast crossover between halves, it's obvious: the bare-bones human scene of the first part has acquired a self-reflective layer, the play-within-a-play that dominates the opera and production. It begins in the prologue, where Tonio appears as emcee (with mic) before what's later revealed to be the troupe's show curtain, and as the curtain rises on apparently the same town square a half-century after Cav we see more mess, more color... and the electrical and telephone wires that signal modernity. In this new world, the troupe's truck and its stage occupy and expand the Cav-era altarpiece's position in the community: center, focus, and maintainer of its peace.

This centerpiece, of course, moves. It reflects and makes light of the viewers' rivalries and frustrations rather than just dissolving them for a time. And perhaps because of this there's a more pervasive peace and relaxation in the town. The locals sit in orderly rows facing the performance, but before then even the troupe's arrival is enough for a festive welcome. (Of course, the performance is going on even during this welcome, as the silent members of the troupe, in a very nice addition by McVicar, help unload and unpack the truck Three Stooges-style.) But those who don't get to watch the show - primarily Canio and Tonio, more or less analogous in their rivalries to Alfio and Santuzza respectively - still feel the old poisons of jealousy and envy.

*     *     *

Roberto Alagna was originally scheduled to sing Canio in this run, before Kaufmann's cancellation from Manon Lescaut pulled him into that dud. His replacement was Marco Berti, whose work in the radio matinee seems to have elicited some negative responses. Now in Verdi his lopsided force-to-refinement ratio can certainly be faulted, but in the house, in this less orderly context, the huge unfettered sound of his despair made for a great and appreciated success. Call him "Barco Merti" if you like, but with affection.

The scale of Berti's work matched, as an Alagna success would have not, that of the night's most thorough success - spinto tenor Yonghoon Lee as Turridu in the double bill's opener. With veteran mezzo-turned-dramatic soprano Violeta Urmana now hindered by declining high notes as well as her characteristically deliberate, longer-time-scale approach that works better in Wagner, it's left to Lee to convey the urgency of the story. This he did magnificently, making the climax of the action - Turridu's farewell to his mother - the emotional and sonic climax as well.

All others did their bit effectively as well - not least Marty Keiser, Andy Sapora, and Joshua Wynter, who reprised their actual (silent) clowning in Pag from last season's original run.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.