Simply put, Damiano Michieletto's new production of opera's most beloved double bill is superb. Set in a dusty and slightly impoverished South Italian town in the 1980s, Michieletto's set is 'verismo' in its truest sense; it accentuates the grittiness of Mascagni's score in particular and, amongst the unadorned and ungilded, the toxic cesspool of human emotions that forms the core of both operas is permitted to explode in the melodramatic and sensual way we have come to expect. I found myself recalling the vulgar, beautiful and wounded Italian youth 'Gino'* amongst the San Gimignano hills, untaught and untamed, driven only by brutish instinct. Michieletto's presentation has such an effect; the muted palette of greys and browns only serves to accentuate the wild lushness of the orchestration and the mounting delirium. The linking of the two operas through the production (with characters overlapping in both interludes) is not novel, but it is neatly and seamlessly incorporated, serving an interesting outlook on idiosyncratically human troubles. It is thus with no small degree of resentment that I think of opening night reports of boos from a section of audience who have not yet soothed their affronted feathers at Michieletto's Guillaume Tell. Not only does it show horrid disrespect to the artists currently onstage, it also belies the petty small-mindedness of a certain faction of the Covent Garden crowd who seem to desire the same tyrannical power as La Scala's loggionisti; how one could muster the energy to surface old grudges after such a sublime double bill is quite beyond my reckoning. As for Guillaume Tell itself, it suffices to say that I thought it the finest ensemble production and performance of the rather disappointing 2014/15 season.
As Santuzza, Eva Maria Westbroek delivered what was unanimously declared as the performance of the evening. Although her range seems to now waiver towards mezzo, her Santuzza was delectable; at once indignant and wretched. Westbroek inhabited the role in a way that we have come to expect (her final act Maddalena was bright spot in an otherwise tepid Andrea Chenier) but vocally she has grown exponentially. Gone is the strain and harshness that used to envelope her phrases; here, she opens her voice to an alluringly bright tone that penetrates the deepest corners of the hall. As with the other characters of this goldfish bowl view of Italian life, Santuzza is virilely majestic in her impetuosity; Westbroek conveys this profoundly, in a particularly startling choreographed passage where the wax figure of the Virgin Mary, carried aloft a baying crowd in the Easter procession seemingly comes alive and berates Santuzza for her sins.
Her Santuzza had a match in Elena Zilio's Mamma Lucia, a magpie figure of matronly affection. Aleksandres Antonenko's Turiddu gave an admirable effort but I perhaps question the limits of his capacity for verismo opera; his tone, while beguilingly in its own way, is not quite full and is at danger of being too self-restrained. With the effervescent Tony Pappano coaxing the best sounds out of the orchestra that I have for long time from the pit below, the audience long to be swept away by an indescribable plethora of bloody colours, to hear the roar from the stage coincide the rising tempers. As Turiddu, he fell slightly short of such euphoria. But ultimately, it mattered very little; being the jewel that it is, Cavalleria Rusticana is an easy charmer. It benefits from having no 'central' number such as Vesti la giubba - after which everything and anything appears necessarily anti-climatic. There is no wasted exchanges, no 'filler' moments; everything flows, simple yet riveting.
Pagliacci had more shortcomings; though they were widely casting issues. Carmen Giannattasio I unfortunately failed to warm to; her Nedda had a barren and desiccant quality, oscillating uncomfortably from vulnerable to cruel to wanton. The contrast with Westbroek before her was illustrative; neither characters are truly sympathetic, but we lived Santuzza's despair, whereas Nedda's was disconnected. Antonenko gave a much improved turn as Canio; aside from slightly pre-empting his entries in vesti la giubba, there was a real maniacal edge to his performance and his final breakdown (no, Pagliaccio non son) was petrifyingly electric, laid bare on a converted gym hall stage. Tonio (Dimitri Platanias) was invigorating, if slightly unremarkable, and Dionysios Sourbis' Silvio was a pleasant surprise, adding weight and pathos to the role.
Yet, there was much to admire in the staging, which was more adventurous than Cavalleria Rusticana. There was something perversely gripping about the school gym / village hall set up that seemed to grasp the bleakness of the drama. The faint ridiculousness that this great, sordid story is unravelling amidst monkey bars and school assembly rooms only accentuates the sense of voyeurism that pervades the opera, further knowingly directed at the end when Tonio, speaking to the real life, not stage, audience, declares with twisted triumph "the comedy is finished!" and we realise that it is in our faces that the lights are directed. In the pit, Pappano continued his wonderful work, finding joy and voice in one of opera's most ravishing scores, truly embodying every ounce of Italianate blood within him. He, together with Michieletto and Westbroek, are the makings of these alluring new productions.
* E.M Foster's Where Angels Fear to Tread