A bleeding, inch-thick hunk of verismo sirloin: Royal Opera's Cav and Pag reviewed

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

16 July 2022

9:00 AM

Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci

Royal Opera House, in rep until 20 July

University of Birmingham Singers/CBSO/Brabbins

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

One legacy of lockdown in the classical music world has been the sheer length of the 21-22 season. In a typical year, most orchestras and urban opera companies would be winding down by mid-May. Not this time: after two years of postponements, and with lost income to recoup, seasons are stretching out like the finale of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. Rumour maintains that audiences are being stretched too thinly, and although it’d be naive to infer anything fundamental from a smattering of vacant seats, it did feel surprising to see empty patches for the first night of the Royal Opera’s Cav and Pag. Absent Kaufmaniacs, disappointed by Jonas’s latest no-show? (He cancelled last month with Covid-related vocal problems, and has since confirmed that he will not appear later in the run.)

Or an insufficiently appetising offer in an unusually crowded field? There’s something about the automatic pairing of these two operas that always carries with it an air of the store cupboard. A reliable standby, then, pulled off the shelf at the fag end of a long year, and failing the taste test in the absence of Big J’s hot sauce? Not a bit of it: even after multiple changes, this was a cast to make you salivate. SeokJong Baek, straight out of Samson et Dalila, stepped up as Turiddu, and Roberto Alagna sang Canio. Add Pappano in the pit (and he really is the business in this kind of repertoire) and this was anything but a bland reheat. It was a bleeding, inch-thick hunk of verismo sirloin, slavered in oil and garlic and smacked straight on to white-hot coals.

Damiano Michieletto’s double production has been around since 2015 (Noa Naamat handled this revival), but it was new to me. Both operas are placed in the same modern Italian village, but the sets – all shabby stucco and sun-parched weeds – are ingenious and atmospheric; only a die-hard literalist could object. Two of Michieletto’s decisions did jar. One was the pair of mime sequences in which characters from each opera appear briefly in the other: it was a bit too neat, though the audience appeared to like Santuzza’s invented happy ending. The other was Alessandro Carletti’s lighting, which creates an engulfing sea of darkness so a blazing Sicilian noon (or dawn, or summer evening) looks like a permanent Arctic midnight. That’s just what lighting designers are into right now, it seems. You shrug, adjust, and enjoy the show regardless.

Which shouldn’t be too hard: this is a faithful and highly imaginative staging, with lively naturalism (Michieletto marshals a moving crowd scene with huge panache) illuminated by sudden freeze-frame flashes of raw melodrama – in other words, much like Mascagni’s music. Leoncavallo’s fatal scherzo of a score gets subtler treatment, with green light sliding queasily across the scene to mimic Canio’s increasingly fevered imaginings. Baek’s wiry tenor makes him a cocksure, alpha-male Turiddu; Dimitri Platanias is a brittle Alfio in Cav and a charcoal-voiced, genuinely intimidating Tonio in Pag. Alagna, meanwhile, is at that rewarding point in a star’s career where the early vocal glamour has long since eroded but the accrued dramatic experience and sense of line more than compensate. He leans into the worn patches on his voice, sparing nothing in a harrowing ‘Vesti la giubba’ and playing on his rapport with the Covent Garden crowd to tilt your sympathies briefly – but disturbingly – in Canio’s favour.

And yet he never upstages the unquestioned star. Aleksandra Kurzak was a deeply touching and vulnerable Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and a sensual and courageous Nedda in Pagliacci – singing, throughout, with vibrant lyricism and heart-piercing sweetness. In the strapping, sun-kissed glow of Pappano’s orchestra everything comes together, and the result is a pair of passionate and compelling thrillers inhabited by desperately believable characters. No Jonas, obviously, but opera is bigger than any one star, and there’s plenty of sizzle on this steak.

It’s been a good year for late romantic also-rans. Stanford’s Requiem Mass of 1897 was one of the countless choral epics that were commissioned and quickly forgotten by the Birmingham Triennial Festival in the half-century between its two lucky strikes, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. As a summer project for the 100-strong University of Birmingham Voices, it was heroic – 90 minutes of noble, Brahms-adjacent choral music topped out with the searchlight soprano of Carolyn Sampson and accompanied by a radiant-sounding CBSO under Martyn Brabbins. But it was the student choir (trained by CBSO and LSO chorusmaster Simon Halsey) that really gave this performance its lustre – singing with a transparency, a precision and a sensitivity that made the big climaxes shine like a halo above Stanford’s occasionally turbid orchestral writing. It’s unclear whether Stanford’s Requiem has been performed in Birmingham since 1897, but unlikely that it has ever sounded more beautiful.

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