Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci – or Cav and Pag as they are colloquially known – are such regular bedfellows it seems hard to believe that the latter premiered at the Met with Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and continued there for 30 years shackled to Hansel and Gretel! In fact, Mascagni’s endlessly tuneful Cav was a one-act opera competition winner, while Leoncavallo’s more chromatically sophisticated Pag was consciously written to emulate the former’s success. Neither is the world’s subtlest opera – a poor performance of Cav can sound like Gilbert and Sullivan without the jokes – but if you like your brisket rare, the classic verismo double bill offers plenty of sex, lies and buckets of blood.

Dragana Radakovic as Santuzza, Dominica Matthews as Mamma Lucia, Diego Torre as Turridu and the Opera Australia Chorus in Cavalleria Rusticana. Photos by Keith Saunders

Not that these are easy works to pull off. It requires the right musical and directorial hands to lift these in-your-face shockers out of the realm of pulp fiction. Fortunately Opera Australia’s new Covent Garden co-production does just that thanks to Damiano Michieletto’s highly intelligent staging and Andrea Licata’s sensitive conducting. And OA has assembled a very fine cast indeed led by Mexican-born (now an Australian citizen) Diego Torre, who doesn’t just cope with the rare double act of the womanising Turridu and the psychotic Canio, he picks them up by the scruff of the neck and drop kicks them into touch.

The Italian-born Michieletto has acquired something of an enfant terrible reputation, not helped by the silly fracas over the Royal Opera William Tell ‘rape’ scene a couple of years back. His work here – and good on OA for programming him – shows a bright mind able to develop a logical arc throughout the back-to-back operas with a panoply of original ideas that always stay the right side of gimmicky. Opening Cav with a tableau following the death of Turridu before winding back the clock to see how we got here is just one of his clever temporal shifts. Having the Pag players postering the village in Cav, and introducing Nedda and Silvio (in this case, a local baker) via a sweetly played romantic scena during that famous Intermezzo is a stroke of genius. Resolving Santuzza and Mamma Lucia’s story in the corresponding Pag Intermezzo was equally savvy, but no spoilers…

Dominica Matthews as Mamma Lucia and Dragana Radakovic as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana.

An Italian creative team could be expected to get it right, and Paolo Fantin’s authentic village square, bakery and school doesn’t disappoint. It’s beautifully observed – and beautifully lit by Alessandro Carletti – from the peeling plaster, the rickety TV antenna and the climbing frame in the gym, right down the weeds growing up through the dirt. Carla Teti’s costumes are equally well-observed, placing us anywhere between 1950 and now, in the way that those tiny Italian villages still have an uncanny ability to drag us back into the last century. Michieletto populates his community with a loving eye, each person an original, with plenty of petty local squabbles simmering away beneath the Easter pieties. His kids choir is brilliantly observed, putting on a mute passion play during the Bell Chorus. The ‘Great Italian Bake off’ that precedes Turridu’s brindisi is a riot of town busybodies casting judgmental glances sideways at each other’s offerings.

With such a rich communal background, the principals stand out clearly and in sharper focus. Dominica Matthews’ sober-stockinged Mamma Lucia, so eloquent in her grief, is a familiar figure – we’ve all seen one, standing on a balcony or cleaning a doorstep as we pass though an Italian town. Dragana Radakovic’s straight-laced Santuzza is heartbreakingly contrasted with Sian Pendry’s posturing slapper of a Lola. Diego Torre’s Turridu – frankly a bit of a bastard and a bully – comes across as the spolied only child who always got his own way. José Carbó’s Alfio is the determined, upwardly mobile travelling salesman, refreshingly three-dimensional. When the Madonna on the Easter float comes to life and taunts Santuzza, it could even be Lola – who else would have put her hand up and bagged the plum role in the village pageant?

Sian Pendry as Lola, Diego Torre as Turridu, Samuel Dundas as Silvio and the Opera Australia Chorus in Cavalleria Rusticana.

By setting up Nedda and Silvio as kind, decent folks in Cav, by the time we get to Pag we actually care about them. Anna Princeva’s Nedda isn’t just a trapped wife, she’s a sweet soul on the verge. Samuel Dundas’ Silvio becomes someone we know, not just that extra baritone that pops up for a love scene. Michieletto doesn’t do black and white, he wants us to empathise, so Torre’s Canio is no monster. If you have tears, prepare to shed them at the most moving Vesti la giubba I’ve ever seen. Likewise Carbó’s Tonio is refreshingly complex and intriguingly differentiated from the man who sings the prologue.

If the dramatic standards are high – this is a production for keeps – the musical values give them a run for their money. It feels as if this music is in Licata’s blood (I gather he’s a Sicilian), and every passionate ebb and flow is sensitively felt and handled. The Opera Australia Orchestra is on fine form, perfectly balanced as Licata teases out the prelude to Cav with a chamber music delicacy that belies its sometimes simplistic orchestrations. He proves equally masterful in balancing the verismo with the Wagnerisms in Pag. His sense of rubato never fails, and he takes his soloists with him at every twist and turn. The OA Chous is in its element with all that character detail, and they seize upon the ripe musical lines with relish. Just occasionally they come a cropper, as the revolve makes it hard to follow the conductor and some of the Pag choruses are bloody difficult, but this will likely be ironed out as the run continues. The children’s chorus was excellent too, singing with warm tone and disciplined in some tricky corners, while staying just the right side of overly cute.

The Opera Australia Children’s Chorus and the Opera Australia Chorus in Pagliacci.

Leading the vocal honours is Torre’s tireless double act. His ringing, Italianate voice is a natural for the arrogance of Turridu, and as expected the duet with Santuzza is a battle royal, but his Canio is winningly nuanced as he oscillates between bravura and despair. Warm in the middle and lower registers, he makes the top seem easy, and his projection is magnificent. But listen to his Vesti la giubba and you’ll hear a serious artist at work, shading and shaping phrases, the histrionics neatly integrated into the vocal line. By the end, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience to tear up as his sobs infused the full arc of that final Ridi del duol che t’avvelena il cor! He’s a good actor too, capturing the immaturity of Turridu and plumbing the depths as Michieletto cleverly slips out of reality in Pag’s play-within-a-play to take us deep into Canio’s drink-fuelled hallucinatory brain.

As his two love interests, Radakovic and Princeva are nicely contrasted. The former was a magnificent, crystalline Turandot on the harbour last year, but here she displays a warmer, richer voice, especially in the middle register. She has a potent bottom too, and knows how to deploy it without ever resorting to coarseness or clumsiness. Voi lo sapete, o mamma is movingly done as, wrapped up in her painfully sensible clothes, Radakovic captures the loneliness of the outsider turned outcast. Princeva is a shrewd choice for Nedda, a tricky, surprisingly heavy role that is often under-cast. With no shortage of fire power, her Stridono lassù is nicely connected right across the range. She’s a powerful actor too, her scene with Dundas’ testosterone-fueled Silvio sizzles with unfilled desire.

Anna Princeva as Nedda, Samuel Dundas as Silvio and Diego Torre as Canio in Pagliacci.

Carbó is on fine form, singing a really sensitive Prologo with some terrific top notes. Neither of his characters come across with the viciousness of some interpretations, but that has gains, especially with Tonio where disabled can equate awkwardly with sexual predator. Matthews is a warm-voiced Lucia, Pendry a fruity temptress as Lola and Dundas a well-rounded, spunky Silvio. John Longmuir plays the caught-in-the-middle Beppe with a customary brightness of tone. In short, this is a cast without any weak links.

Cav and Pag may not be for the Tristan and Isolde set, but if you feel pot-boilered out, maybe you should think again. For a slice of verismo served up with relish and a fine body count at the end, Michielotto’s take is about as good as it gets. Add to it Licata’s ennobling conducting, an excellent cast, and Torre in spectacular form, and many would say it’s what Italian opera is all about.

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci are at Sydney Opera House until February 4.


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