Cav & Pag…er…Why don’t we just make that a Pag

Opera Review: Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci at New York City Opera

There’s a lot to like about the City Opera’s double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, or “Cav and Pag,” as the program notes suggest they are better known by. And director Stephen Lawless (any relation to Xena?) has worked with set and costume designer Ashley Martin-Davis to illicit a palpable sense of connectivity between the two verismo dramas that are only really tied together by their national and period origins. But in the end, one felt that the afternoon would have been more satisfying had only Pagliacci been served up for our weekend opera brunch.

The operas are bookended and incessantly subdivided by a scrim that depicts a mob of workers-of-the-world marching forward in a rustic–presumably Sicilian–setting, at the forefront of which two men are trailed by an infant-toting woman who lunges toward them, one arm reaching. In actuality, the characters on the scrim have no relationship to the characters in either opera. Even as the light rise on-stage, and you see the opera chorus emerge behind the scrim in similar pose, you can’t help but feel the effort to “transport” the audience to a new time and place is forced.

Cav’s main problem is that the music isn’t all that enticing, and the drama itself, though it may have been scandalous in its own day, comes off as unmotivated today. A twenty-minute Easter parade–that swells to choral-orchetral climax as a fifteen-foot crucifix that takes up half the stage is erected (we call this the “cruxerection”)–interrupts the surreptitious sexual transgressing and violent sub-plotting, otherwise known as human drama. While in late 19th century Italy, this may have been scandalous to juxtapose the two subjects, today, it reads as the classic treatment of Catholic guilt: Give a big nod to the church, then go about your business swindling and fornicating.

And there was an attempt here to update the work. It seemed to be set in between-the-wars era Sicily or Oklahoma. It was hard to tell. Vintage gas pumps juxtaposed a wine café, above which a seemingly scandalous bedroom is perched behind a wall of shutters. This portion of the set kept extending into the stage and retracting for reasons that were not always clear. And when the bedroom is fully exposed, and you’ve already understood it to be a place of licentious activity from Turiddu’s first entrance, as a deliciously round butt-cheek belonging to a wife-beater-clad Brandon Jovanovich is hooked over a window sill above, Mama Lucia rolls out of bed, and you could hear an audible chuckle from the audience.

As for the performances…

Brandon Jovanovich’s Turiddu was a hearty, meaty morsel of man. From the opening, off-stage serenade to the violent dishonoring of his woman, Jovanovich sang with a wonderfully bright and vivid tone. With the exception of the tiniest little rasp near the final climax, his vocal performance was nearly flawless.

Anna Maria Chiuri’s Santuzza was solid, even though she sang the entire role at the same, robust level. Rebecca Ringle was a promising Lola, clad in red and packing a huge instrument, which, unfortunately, this role doesn’t show off. Mamma Lucia was sung forgettably by Susan Nicely. And Andrew Oakden sang with ease as Alfio.

Pagliacci–as music, as theater–is far superior than Cavalleria rusticana, which is unfortunate for Pag, even on a good day for Cav. (If the phrase “far superior” should offend, feel free to read as: works better.) The moment you hear the horns play the “Riddi, Pagliaccio” motive during the prelude, you want to reel and die. Leoncovallo’s orchestrations are more inventive and nuanced than Mascagni’s, and his handling of dramatic tension and climax is more daring.

From the prologue, where Tonio, the hunchback (here, segued entertainingly by Andrew Oakden), you understand that you’re in for a more sophisticated theatrical experience. Like a deformed, bloated puck, Tonio pleads with the audience to enter the world of the theater and its characters, its humor and its tragedy. Oakden’s Tonio is particularly creepy. He sinks into the character with his entire body, heaving and limping as he bounds around the stage. But despite the exterior menace, his voice is clear and skillful.

The set emerges–once again from the overused scrim mural–as a bubblegum-pink trailer lit up with broadway marquee lights, a shabby, scarlet chaise-lounge, and seven heavy yellow ropes that descend and fan out around the stage. (In another theatrical ploy, you see Lola from Cav, lost and wandering with a suit case and a black eye.) This is carnie chic at its most pop–wood chips included. Suddenly you imagine that you’re in one of the scenes from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. It works.

Maria Kanyova, as Nenne, is a bored, bleached-blonde starlet at the heart of the everyone’s amorous attention. She is directed wonderfully to emit that comic, trailer-trash pastiche–at one point even singing with a cigarette dangling from the side of her mouth–as she tries to find her way to freedom from the dissolute environment of the traveling theater.

Of all her suitors, Nenne picks the virtuous Silvio, played stalwartly by Michael Todd Simpson, who sang with verve and shared a particularly sexy–and completely engrossing–moment on the lounge with Ms. Kanyova in the duet leading up to Canio’s famous aria.

As Canio, Carl Tanner’s voice was as rough and tumble as the character’s handling of Nenne. For the most part, it was big and scratchy, but when the money was on the line, and his voice needed to blow out the rhinestone light fixtures, it did. And he had a powerful theatrical presence as well, bringing a stormy intensity into the quixotic play within the play of the opera’s second half.

A corp of acrobats (Matt Ferraro, Trey Gillen, John Grimaldi and Bronwyn Simms) were standout performers in their own right, adding Burtonesque hints of circus flare and clowned charisma.

This Pagliacci is strong enough to stand on its own, as, perhaps, the opera has always been. Maybe it’s time we left it off the leash of this unbalanced double bill.

Cav&Pag runs October 19, 21, 25 and 27 at The New York City Opera

Bonus link: Read Bernard Holland’s review in The New York Time’s. You know, for contrast!


1 Comment

  1. […] posh review in The Times, although she clotheslines 2007 Award Winner Brandon Jovanovich (remember his savory buttock from Cav?!): “The winner of this year’s Tucker award for promising young professionals, the tenor […]

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