They look like penguins in the Antarctic. In fact, they are the black-clad inhabitants of a sun-bleached, almost abstract Sicilian village.
Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1890) arrives in Paris from the Teatro Real, Madrid, in tandem with that other warhorse of the verismo school, Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” (1892).
The coupling of the two short works, both dealing with a crime of passion in the Mezzogiorno, is standard practice -- though not at the Paris Opera. Up to now, “Cavalleria” was deemed inferior and suitable only for the Opera Comique.
In 1983, the last time “Pagliacci” was seen at the Palais Garnier, it shared the stage with “Erzsebet,” which was based on the story of a Hungarian serial killer and set to music by French composer Charles Chaynes.
This is the first time “Cav” and “Pag” are produced together at the Bastille Opera.
Giancarlo Del Monaco, the director, is known for his conservative taste. That doesn’t exclude original ideas, some more convincing than others.
Although the evening starts with “Cavalleria,” the first thing we hear is the prologue from “Pagliacci”: The lights go on again, and from behind the audience emerges Tonio, brilliantly sung by Sergey Murzaev, and tells us that we’re about to see “uno squarcio di vita,” a slice of real life, which is indeed true of both works.
Set designer Johannes Leiacker’s decision to do without a church was a less fortunate flash of inspiration: Why the villagers appear and disappear in the amorphous labyrinth of streets remains their secret.
Somebody also should have told the directorial team that the opera takes place on Easter Sunday. The procession of flagellants and cross-bearing penitents has the Christian calendar wrong.
Among the singers, Violeta Urmana’s vibrant Santuzza stands out. Although neither Turiddu (Marcello Giordani) nor his rival Alfio (Franck Ferrari) possesses what you would call a beguiling voice, they are both dramatically effective.
“Pagliacci” is better, both vocally and scenically.
Canio and his troupe arrive in a van whose rear-view mirror is later put to good dramatic use: When he looks at himself in his clown’s costume, he bursts into bitter laughter.
Three large posters of Anita Ekberg in Fellini’s film “La Dolce Vita” suggest the main square of the Calabrian village.
My only objection to the staging is that the play-in-the-play derails too soon and that much of the harlequinade takes place amid the villagers, weakening the murderous climax.
“La commedia e finita,” the final line, is spoken by Tonio, not by Canio as tradition has it.
Vladimir Galuzin’s Canio sounds more like the crazed gambler in Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” than an Italian cuckold. Thankfully, he doesn’t overdo the sobbing.
The young Rumanian soprano Brigitta Kele is the discovery of the evening. Her crystal clear Nedda is a joy.
Daniel Oren’s conducting is phlegmatic. For “Cavalleria,” he takes as long as the composer’s own 1940 recording, easily the slowest on the market.
The two operas are in repertory at the Bastille Opera through May 11.
Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr or +33-1-7125-2423.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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