The Extraordinary Everyday: Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci at La Monnaie – De Munt

Mascagni – Cavalleria rusticana

Santuzza – Alex Penda
Turiddu – Leonardo Caimi
Lucia – Elena Zilio
Alfio – Dimitri Platanias
Lola – Josè Maria la Monaco

Leoncavallo – Pagliacci

Canio – Carlo Ventre
Nedda – Simona Mihai
Tonio – Scott Hendricks
Beppe – Tansel Akzeybek
Silvio – Gabriele Nani

Kooracademie, Kinder- en Jeugdkoren van de Munt, Koor van de Munt, Orchestre symphonique de la Monnaie / Evelino Pidò.
Stage director – Damiano Michieletto.

La Monnaie – De Munt, Brussels, Belgium.  Friday, March 16th, 2018.

Damiano Michieletto’s staging of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci has had quite the journey since it was premiered at the London Royal Opera in 2015.  Following runs in Australia and Gothenburg, it’s now Brussels’ turn to see this much acclaimed staging in the house on the Muntplein.  His main innovation is the weave the two stories together, as if events taking place around the same time in the same village.  We see Nedda and Silvio live that coup de foudre of falling in love in the Cav intermezzo.  Likewise, we see Santuzza and Lucia reconciling following Turiddu’s murder in the Pag intermezzo.  The impact of these moments seems ideally matched to the music – somehow the longing in the strings in the Cav finds its match in the burgeoning love on stage.  Similarly, the devastation and search for resolution of the Pag intermezzo seems ideally married to the image of two people living a shared tragedy.  This was amplified further with the presence of Alex Penda’s Santuzza and Elena Zilio’s Lucia, two of the greatest singing-actors of our time, conveying so much emotion through their physical gestures.  What it also confirms is the sheer musical understanding at the heart of Michieletto’s art.  He has given us an intelligent and innovative staging that is clearly based in the musical texture as well as the sung text.

Photo: © Forster

What Michieletto also gives us is a slice of Italian village life.  He finds an interest in the quotidian, those stories that aren’t normally told.  These aren’t stories about princesses or divas, rather he brings out the truly verismo aspects of each piece.  This is provincial Italy, a place where violence simmers near the surface and the crucifix dominates both bakery and school.  His staging feels like a love letter to that country.  The ‘din don’ chorus in Pag is staged as if being performed by a village choral society, led by a conductor and a pianist.  There’s something quite comforting about seeing village life portrayed in this way – a mass of individuals, yet all bringing their own backstory.  Where he also succeeds is in that seemingly contradictory objective of presenting a village full of identifiable characters yet also highlighting the plight of two specific characters.  One, a woman desperate to find resolution; another, a man’s journey into the darkest night of the soul, where the biggest loss he could contemplate comes damagingly true.

Photo: © Forster

His work would not have had the impact it had, were it not for the contribution of those fine artists who populated the stage.   Santuzza is a new role for Penda for this run.  While the centre of gravity in the voice lies somewhat higher than other interpreters of the role, she compensated with a very full and fruity chest register that she exploited to its maximum.  The steely top also cut across the band with ease.  Her tender entreaties to Turiddu were full of passion, her singing so deeply felt.  The curse rang out magnificently.  Her acting was captivating.  In the Easter Hymn, she sang almost shaking with fervour, yet with that knowledge that she will always be an outsider fully present as she stood leaning against the wall of the set, hoping against hope for comfort outside the crowd.  A remarkable performance.  The registers parted company for Elena Zilio some time ago but the voice is still very full at the bottom and she has stage presence to share.  Even when not singing, she lit up the stage.  Josè Maria lo Monaco’s Lola was sung in a sunny mezzo with a good bottom.  Dimitri Platanias sang Alfio with ease.  It seems almost churlish to suggest that there would be something negative in the way that he sang that music with such security, but in a way the elemental struggle that Alfio goes through felt a little underplayed given the ease with which he negotiated the role.  That said, to hear it sung so well was indeed a pleasure after hearing quite a few barkers over the years.  His baritone is in excellent shape.  Leonardo Caimi is a new name to me.  He was a handsome stage presence but his Turiddu was somewhat rough and ready.  He does have a good legato but the tone felt forced and somewhat too wide, as if trying to make it a few sizes bigger than it actually is.  His closing number was sung with real dignity and passion, however.

Photo: © Forster

Pag started with Scott Hendricks’ generously-sung prologue.  He took the lower option on the A-flat, and the tone was slightly dry, but he did demonstrate a good line.  Later, his Tonio was dangerously insinuating, making full use of the dynamics to shade the tone.  Simona Mihai’s Nedda is familiar from the Royal Opera performances.  While on Bow Street, the voice had no trouble being heard; tonight, from my seat in the middle of the orchestra section, I must admit that in the middle of the voice she was frequently inaudible.  She soared nicely in ‘stridono lassù’ but I left with a sense that the voice was slightly small for the role.  Gabriele Nani was a youthful and handsomely-sung Silvio and Tansel Akzeybek a distinctive and peppery Beppe.  Carlo Ventre took us deep into the heart of Canio’s despair.  His ‘vesti la giubba’ was devastating – the huge bear of a voice, somewhat unwieldy due to its sheer size, yet bringing with it an honesty of utterance that was so direct and so moving.  The rustic sound made Canio’s pain all the more real as if living those feelings of betrayal for the very first time.

Photo: © Forster

I wish I could be more positive about Evelino Pidò’s conducting but I’m afraid it was the single disappointment of the evening.  While he led with some interesting rubato, it always felt imposed from outside rather than felt from within.  He got the strings to dig deep in the Cav intermezzo but overall his reading felt pedestrian and lacking in life, certainly compared with the electric performances on stage.  The house band played respectably for him.  There were some very nice portamenti in the strings although intonation in the cellos was sour at times.  The brass behaved themselves and the winds had character.  The house chorus was on blistering form as was the well-trained children’s chorus.  The adults filling the house in a blaze of sound, the tone well blended and ensemble watertight all night.

Photo: © Forster

This was a magnificent evening in the theatre.  We were given an insightful staging combined with some heart-breaking and intense performances.  Above all, it showcased, in Penda and Zilio, two ladies who truly live their roles and through them, brought us into their pain and suffering.  Similarly, we were taken by Ventre on a journey into the bleakest place, by a tenor who gave unsparingly of himself for us.   Above all, what Michieletto succeeds in doing is putting front and centre the remarkableness of the everyday.  Along with his singing-actors he brings to life ordinary people living extraordinary lives.  A remarkable and deeply moving evening.

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