The two famously paired operatic old standards, “Cav and Pag,” have been given a fresh look by accomplished director Stephen Lawless at City Opera this fall. Taking inspiration from early Italian neorealist film, especially Visconti’s Obsession and Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, the action is updated to a gritty southern Italy suggesting the 1940s. Cavalleria Rusticana unfolds in a village main street adorned with a crude gas station and a vinoteca apparently owned by Mamma Lucia and Turridu, which opens, closes, and slides across the stage as the plot dictates. Perhaps surprisingly, it remains open on the day of the setting, Easter Sunday, for the villagers to have their lively brindisi. Ashley Martin-Davis’s costumes are taken more or less straight from the films. In his wife beater Turridu looked a lot like Massimo Girotti’s character in the Visconti oeuvre; Lola resembled his partner in crime Clara Calamai. The other characters and the chorus, which did not bother to change costumes for Pagliacci, could have been extras in the Sicilian scenes from the first two Godfather movies. The second opera on the double bill was the more garish of the two. Canio’s troupe goes about in a pink camper vehicle. Their show – the famous play within the play – was more circus than act. Lawless innovatively allows the onstage murders of Nedda and her lover Silvio to be taken by the spectators on stage as all part of the show, but overall one had the impression that he could have done more with the filmic inspiration and some of the perhaps unavoidable political tropes from the era. A flimsy show curtain depicting peasants in a vague socialist realist style covered both operas for no apparent reason.
The evening featured several debuts, including that of mezzo-soprano Anna Maria Chiuri, who strikingly depicted Santuzza’s mixture of angst, rage, and regret. Rebecca Ringle was suitably bitchy, but well voiced, in her debut as Lola. Andrew Oakden seemed a bit overwhelmed by the double pressure of performing both Alfio in Cavalleria and Tonio in Pagliacci. His biggest scenes, the entrance in the first opera (Il cavallo scalpita) and introduction of the second (Si puo?) lacked a really forceful delivery. Of the returning artists, Brandon Jovanovich gave Turridu his all, from his mocking laughter at Santuzza to the sweetness of his departure from his mother, sung to great sympathy by Susan Nicely. Carl Tanner’s Canio was solid, though Vesti la giubba came off less well than his overall performance (one of the other characters did not help by dropping and breaking the light bulbs on the electric mirror Tanner had to use to address himself in the aria). Maria Kanyova’s Nedda was competent and entertaining. City Opera music director George Manahan acquitted himself well despite a few mismatched tempi with his singers.
Paul du Quenoy