Two operas entirely rooted in the sinful tragedy of unrequited love. Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci spill reams of remorse and devastation onto the audience, each just in one act, and together create a wholesome and familiar outlook on the echoic plot that each primarily revolves around. From the vast amounts of rapturous applause in the Royal Opera House, it was evident that this stupendous double bill did not go unappreciated.
The works of Mascagni and Leoncavallo are more reminiscent of each other than they could ever have known. Both were members of the verismo movement, living in Italy during the post-1860 destruction of war and instability, and this necessity for their work to be suggestive of a truth in their world hjad an impact on the result. Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci both follow a group of lovers to the tragic consequence of their actions. All of the characters are tied up in their setting and in the inability to express their desire, and in doing so they catapult each other into mayhem.
However, amongst the similarity of their works comes an inevitable number of differences. Mascagni’s opera is subtler in presenting the story to its audience; we are left guessing and assuming before coming to terms with exactly what has happened. Leoncavallo’s, however, is more dramatic and grand. There is no doubt of the immorality behind the actions of our characters and the scenes of envy and betrayal are more prominent on stage.
Damiano Michieletto’s direction is what bewitched me more than the operas themselves. To relate the two pieces, in more than just similarity of the plot, we are transported to a rugged, isolated Italian village, giving the overwhelming feeling of the characters being confined with no way out. Accompanying Michieletto are set designer Paolo Fantin and lighting designer Alessandro Carletti to help the torn-apart town become a reality. Therefore Michieletto gives us a connection to this secluded town and allows us to be part of the communal atmosphere.
His clever direction does not end here though; his use of chorus is remarkable, truly displaying the chattering community. In Cavalleria Rusticana they are bustling and jubilantly celebrating the joy of Easter, but then make the solemn ending – and cleverly the beginning too – even more poignant and gut-wrenching. In Pagliacci the chorus are more manic and determined, pushing their way through to see the touring show. Here they are most intelligently used when wearing masks, traumatising Canio as they torture him with their judging glares; he sees them as inhumane and this pushes him deep into his downfall. Michieletto slips in small nods to the other opera in each production. In Cavalleria Rusticana we have the posters for Pagliacci and we see lovers Silvio and Nedda start their affair. In Pagliacci we see Santuzza mourning the death of her husband before joining the rest of the community for the show. These subtle glimpses of the other show again give a feeling that they belong together in one night.
Despite the emphasis of the operas being on the sense of community, the soloists are outstanding: full of love, vigour, envy and revenge – everything that is needed. A few heart-wrenching solos and duets stand out over the others though. In Cavalleria Rusticana the duet between Alfio and Santuzza tells of twisted revenge, tension and bitterness, sung through the power of Dimitri Platanias and the purity of Eva-Maria Westbroek. In Pagliacci it is again Dimitri Platanias that impresses, absorbing the audience in the ‘play within a play’ style with the opening prologue.
So is there a preference between Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci? The opening music of Masacagni’s opera is more melodic, charming and atmospheric to me, conducted by the talented Antonio Pappano, but Leoncavallo’s is more dramatic, though perhaps less poignant. Either way, these one-act works are moulded together with Michieletto’s direction and reinvent the work of those involved in the Italian verismo movement.
Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci is playing at the Royal Opera House until 1 January. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.