By David Shengold
NEW YORK — After 45 years, the Metropolitan Opera’s hyper-realistic Franco Zeffirelli stagings of opera’s most famous double bill, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, were due for replacement. General manager Peter Gelb called upon one of his preferred directors, David McVicar, for the job. At intermission of the new production’s first outing on April 14, alas, the Florentine-born director-designer’s name was on all lips, since the new Cav proved disappointingly devoid not just of charm but also of any visual interest. (There are seven more performances scheduled through May 8. )
Who knew that this score, so full of relentless Sicilian sunshine, its libretto full of mentions of flowers in bloom, took place entirely at night, at least in McVicar’s concept. Lit largely by spots from above by Paule Constable, the set — if Rae Smith’s drab black and brown walls with scattered chairs can be called that — had a central platform that rotated nearly incessantly, at least whenever it had the opportunity to draw focus. The poor choristers frequently had to adjust their bodies accordingly. (As usual these days, the male contingent sounded vocally fresher than their female counterparts.)
Santuzza (Eva-Maria Westbroek) was onstage from the prelude’s opening bars. Apparently in the HD era, we never again will see an unstaged prelude or overture. Heaven forbid anyone should be called upon merely to listen — a shame here, as principal conductor Fabio Luisi coaxed unusual elegance out of Mascagni’s lines.
Santuzza, centrally placed, seemed (plausibly enough) to be on trial surrounded by her fellow citizens, seated around her. But any sense of drama seeped away in the relentless set-spinning, ominous Godfather III-style posturing by hatted extras, and risible deployment of three male specialty dancers to grab focus, channeling equine stomping motions to the entrance of Alfio, for example. (Cast in both “heavy” leads, George Gagnidze confirmed himself, if no Golden Ager, at least a fully qualified heavyweight baritone, something painfully rare on the Met stage in recent weeks.) Drama entered only with the galvanized Turiddu of Marcelo Álvarez, offering bright Latinate sound and dynamically varied, finely drawn lines, with just a touch of veristic inflections. It was Álvarez’s night, with Luisi’s work also praiseworthy.
Westbroek commands the requisite physical gestural vocabulary for verismo. Yet — especially in comparison to her magnificent Shostakovich Katerina this fall — Santuzza seemed no more natural to her than Zandonai’s Francesca did in 2013. She sounded riddled with vibrato virtually throughout: a truly fine voice in rather poor form.
Like the Lolas in the Met’s three previous new productions — Martha Lipton (1951), Rosalind Elias (1959), and Nedda Casei (1970) — Ginger Costa-Jackson is a very attractive woman, and she made the straying wife as sensual a slattern as possible. But (positive) comparison must end there, since her instrument, with its shallow upper register, is not of prime quality: this was casting for the cameras. Jane Bunnell, ever the professional, made her solidly vocalized Mamma Lucia’s sympathy for Santuzza palpable.
The Zeffirelli Pagliacci was always garish and vulgar; we’re well rid of it. Starting with the starred, cobalt-blue curtain (later paralleled in the vaudeville troupe’s Mahagonny-surplus truck stage) McVicar presented — in the same town square — a dynamic, sometimes manic post-World War II theatricality. From Tonio’s prologue on, we saw too much of a Three Stooges-style comic trio, skilled but relentlessly upstaging key moments. Still, the opera worked, garnering warm applause.
Álvarez’s robin’s-egg-blue-suited Canio sounded light compared to such bronze-voiced exponents in recent decades as Giuseppe Giacomini and Vladimir Galouzine. The Argentine tenor sounded skimpy in some low-lying phrases, and one or two high-profile moments (like the final “A ventitré ore”) occasioned pushing. The rest made a strong case for a lyrical Canio, and — though McVicar rather overdid the character’s drunkenness (Canio was in no state or place to overhear Nedda’s farewell to Silvio, so its ironic repetition in the onstage play lacked referent) — he acted affectingly.
Visually, Patricia Racette made a lovely, youthful-looking Nedda, and perhaps the sexiest, most hot-to-trot Columbina in memory. The soprano understands veristic phrasing — she deployed chest tones with taste and point — and is a remarkably precise, persuasive actress. But time has not stood still for her upper register, which could sound shrill, the tone spreading under pressure, in comparison to the still-attractive middle voice. In places, Racette compensated with gesture and stance, and overall her approach was an admirably detailed assumption: her antics as Columbina showed, as is rarely the case, that Nedda is a mettlesome, gifted dancer and comedienne.
Costume designer Moritz Junge — good with the other Pagliacci principals — dressed Lucas Meachem’s legato-based but non-combustible Silvio unflatteringly; the lovers’ duet lacked real vocal chemistry. With so much visual emphasis on the three stooges and comic business, McVicar failed to establish the opera’s fifth singing character, Beppe. Beppe acts as a buffer between the others’ passions, but what motivates him? Is he just a journeyman performer trying to get by? Is he, too, attracted to Nedda? Is he gay, or pre-sexual? The character needs some contextual explanation, yet McVicar gave Andrew Stenson nothing to play. The young Minnesota tenor, who has impressed local audiences at Juilliard and elsewhere, hit his vocal stride as Arlecchino in the commedia play. Despite maximal upstaging by Colombina and the omnipresent stooges, Arlecchino’s exquisite little serenade made its mark; again, Luisi in the pit sustained uncommon musical elegance. Gagnidze’s committed Tonio reclaimed his iconic line, “La commedia è finita.” The mixed evening at least ended strongly.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues, and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.