MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Cav/Pag at Grand Théâtre de Genève

I realize it’s only the inertia of tradition that keeps Cavalleria rusticana and I Pagliacci glued together as a double-bill; otherwise they seem silly side by side, a forced pairing that makes no sense. Is it precisely this juxtaposition that makes Cav so difficult to direct? Or is it just the temptation to read too much into it, not accepting the naiveté and directness that are the essence of Mascagni’s opera?

I was thinking about this after seeing the current edition of the pair at Geneva Opera (in its pop-up temporary performance space at the Opéra des Nations). Each opera was divvied out to a separate director: Emma Dante for Cav, Serena Sinigaglia for Pag.

This Cav fell dramatically flat, while the Pag was thoroughly gripping and delivered its expected punch, plus some — the contrast in effectiveness all the more striking.

Cav had the burden of an overcooked dramaturgical conception, juxtaposing a re-enacted Passion scenario with the simple melodrama of jealous lovers and revenge, all set on a darkly-lit stage. A recurrent tableau ensemble showed Jesus on his way to the Crucifixion, hammering home an intended parallelism with Giovanni Verga’s narrative and its atmosphere of Gothic gloom, without the countervailing joy of the Easter celebrations in which it unfolds.

This dampened the built-in effect of the musical contrasts, despite the excellent work of the chorus prepared by Alan Woodbridge. The casting was weak, above all for the Turiddu (sung by Marcello Giordani, who sounded alarmingly strained at the top of his range).

I’d seen and admired Emma Dante’s Macbeth at Edinburgh International Festival last year, so the miscalculations here were surprising. New to me on the other hand was Serena Sinigaglia, who understood how to pace the interactions in Paglicacci for maximal impact. There was just one misstep, in my opinion: a prolonged meta-theater indulgence during the Prologue, with Stage Director and Co. frantically getting the set of forlorn wheat fields in place, which surrounded a simple wooden stage.

It wasn’t that cliché, but the power and intensity of the performers who brought home the ironic point that art and life literally bleed into each other. Maybe verismo isn’t the “slice of life” naturalism it’s so often claimed to be so much as an aesthetic given to its own kind of stylized artifice that tries to make sense of recurring human patterns. Certainly the presence of the crowd here felt more palpably pressuring, willing participants in this society of codes, than in Dante’s Cav.

Diego Torre delivered a genuinely terrifying Canio, and Roman Burdenko (had just sung a thrilling Alfio) gave Tonio an almost Jago-like infusion of malevolence. Nino Machaidze’s combined beauty and grit for a memorable portrayal of Nedda.

Conducting the house Orchestre de la Suisse Romande with dramatic flair as well as melting lyricism was Alexander Joel throughout the evening. He was especially attentive to the range of colorings in Leoncavallo’s more complex score.

Filed under: Geneva Opera, review

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