Thursday 15 September 2016

Mascagni / Leoncavallo - Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci (Royal Opera House, 2015)

Pietro Mascagni - Cavalleria rusticana
Ruggero Leoncavallo - Pagliacci

Royal Opera House, 2015

Antonio Pappano, Damiano Michieletto, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Elena Zilio, Dimitri Platanias, Martina Belli, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Dimitri Platanias, Carmen Giannattasio, Benjamin Hulett, Dionysios Sourbis

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's not normally the first thing you think of when you go to watch a double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, but Damiano Michieletto's 2015 production for the Royal Opera House started me thinking about verismo, what it means and why so little of it has stood the test of time. Post-Wagner and Verdi, verismo seemed to be very much the next step, giving opera the opportunity to explore the lives of ordinary people rather than those of heroes, gods and legends. Aside from Puccini, who never really could be associated closely with verismo post-La Bohème, verismo never really took off and hasn't left a lasting influence. Viewing the two great popular stalwarts of verismo in this production, however, perhaps the style made more of a mark than we think.

The definition of those essential verismo characteristics and perhaps the influence they extend over modern-day opera is highlighted I think by Damiano Michieletto's weaving together of the two genre-defining operas. The popularity of the double bill and their complementary compatibility has long been beyond question, but Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are still viewed as entirely separate musical and dramatic entities. And for good reason, since for all the commonality in subject matter, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo adopt very different approaches to musical storytelling. Giving both works a common setting however does provide a very vivid indication of the ground that verismo covered in the short period between 1889 and 1892.

What is particularly enjoyable about the Royal Opera House production is that it fully explores the context of the works and their themes and blends them together successfully, but it's not merely a directorial exercise. While the stage production brings out qualities that might have gone unnoticed before, it does so in a way that also manages to give the works their fullest expression. Damiano Michelietto's production is all about pushing the verismo to its extremes, and that means pushing both works to their extremes by playing to their respective strengths and qualities.

Seen in that context, if there's any single reason why verismo never really established itself as a force and turned out to be (debatably) an operatic dead-end, it's immediately evident in this production's opening for Cavalleria rusticana; too much verismo realism can kill you. Cavalleria rusticana wears its heart on its sleeve. It's an extraordinary work, too often seen as a kind of warm-up opener for Pagliacci, but I don't accept that it's the lesser work for a second - it's just different. In Pagliacci the passions are more internalised and leaning towards modernism, whereas Mascagni's approach looks back to Verdi, to melody aligned to pure melodrama, and does so by making the passions of the people hyper-externalised.

Certainly as far as Antonio Pappano directs the music and as far as Michelietto sets the drama of the music on the stage, this is life lived without restraint and played at full tilt. Passion, religion, sin, guilt, love and jealousy - this slice of Sicilian life is one lived fully and passionately. As far as verismo goes, that's not only opera dealing with real life, but life lived like an opera. There's no clever conceptualisation required here then, Michelietto allowing the singers full expression for the drama as it plays out, Pappano underlining every sweep and crescendo with a flourish. In a work like this, the impact is astonishing, all the more so when Michelietto takes a step like making the statue of the virgin come to life during the Easter parade. Here, religion is living and the pregnant Santuzza's sin feels as real and vivid to her as the ground she walks on.

Pagliacci might be a little more recondite in its play-within-a-play distancing, its clever use of commedia dell'arte themes and Leoncavallo is a little more modern in the musical expression, but the approach adopted here shows that there's merit in how this kind of overemphasis of the real pushes Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana almost into the surreal or hyper-real. Mascagni's extraordinary gift for melody is all the more apparent for this, as well as his ability to weave religious processions, church bells and local folk colour into the whole fabric of the lives of the work's characters. But it's not life lived without restraint. Eva-Maria Westbroek has spoken about the danger of being swept into the passions of the work and having to control her singing in this work, and it is important. All of the passions are channelled towards an inevitably tragic conclusion, and it's arrived at here with remarkable force and impact.

If there was too much overemphasis anywhere, it is perhaps in making a big deal of the imminent arrival of a troupe of actors in the town to put on a performance of Pagliacci and live out their own version of the tragedy mirrored in Cavalleria rusticana. Michelietto's direction makes good use of the Mascagni's inter-scene music to introduce the characters and situations that would play out in Pagliacci without letting them intrude on the importance of Cavalleria rusticana. The screen direction however, the performance filmed for the live cinema broadcast, made rather more of it, the focus of the camera drawing extra attention to the Pagliacci posters and the significant appearances of characters and situations that might otherwise have passed as local background colour. Just another slice of life.

Cavalleria rusticana is all externalised passions, Paolo Fantin's impressive revolving set fully used to show interiors and exteriors and the relationship between them - particularly as they relate to Santuzza's position in the community. By way of contrast, Pagliacci attempts to put a lid on the emotions through its transference of life into 'art' or performance in its play-within-a-play dramatisation. Again, Micheletto's direction of the performers and the build-up established through the previous work serves to be both a commentary on the nature of the work - on opera, on verismo, its origins and its progress - as well as being a slice of life drama in its own right, never failing to address the music and its dramatic function.

Those origins are not just those of the commedia dell'arte but also indeed Cavalleria rusticana. At this stage in the traditional performance of the double bill, the earlier work has been pushed aside and practically forgotten as we become caught up in the latest new drama. Michelietto's production - even bringing back Santuzza for a cameo appearance - doesn't let you forget however that Cavalleria rusticana is important to the whole tone of Pagliacci, and even shows how the two works have developed a kind of co-dependence. Even the "audience" of Pagliacci here have forgotten the "real-life" drama that has just recently taken place in their own town, sitting down to watch a "made-up" drama, and are unable to recognise the truth that lies behind them.

By this stage too many inverted commas in this review suggest that everything is getting a little too post-modern and over-ambitious in Michieletto's production, but Pappano's conducting and the committed performances manage to dial-down any fanciful ideas and sustain the actual drama, which in verismo you would imagine is paramount. Playing characters in both works, Aleksandrs Antonenko (Turiddu and Canio) and Dimitri Platanias (Alfio and Tonio) keep everything grounded in pure dramatic expression without overacting. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Santuzza is pushed further than most, but likewise holds to the line and essential tone established here. Carmen Giannattasio's Nedda has just as complex and dynamic a position to maintain and does so with tremendous personality. These are performances that work with the production to simultaneously hold one dramatically while at the same time suggesting and sparking off numerous other associations and ideas. Seen in this light, and setting it in the late 20th century, might even provide a clue to the significance of the 'missing link' between the past and the direction opera would take post-verismo.

The Blu-ray disc comes as a 2-disc set, which doesn't really seem necessary, as both are single-layer discs. Even less so since with Micheletto's production the two works are even more intertwined as one here. Colour and detail are all strong in the video transfers, but as usual it's the High Definition uncompressed audio tracks that are most impressive, particularly for works as dynamic as these. In addition to the usual LPCM stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio tracks there is also a Dolby True HD Atmos mix which my amplifier picked up as being a 7-channel mix, although it will also work with a 5.1 set-up. I don't know if there's a significant difference between it and the DTS mix, but both distribute the sound exceptionally well. The extra features are slim but the Introductions more than adequately cover the works and the production, and there's a short piece where Antonio Pappano looks at the music for both pieces. There's also a synopsis and a wonderfully detailed essay on the creation of the two work by Helen Greenwald in the enclosed booklet. The Blu-ray discs are region-free. Subtitles are in Engligh, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Royal Opera House