Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) [74:37]
Paoletta Marrocu - Santuzza
José Cura - Turiddu
Cheyne Davidson - Alfio
Irène Friedli - Mamma Lucia
Liliana Nikiteanu - Lola
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
I Pagliacci (1892) [74:17]
José Cura - Canio
Fiorenza Cedolins - Nedda
Carlo Guelfi - Tonio
Gabriel Bermúdez - Silvio
Boiko Zvetlanov - Peppe
Orchestra and Chorus of the Zurich Opera House/Stefano Ranzani
rec. Zurich Opera House, 2009
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 101 489 [151:00]

Laurel and Hardy, Marks & Spencer, strawberries and cream, Sturm und Drang, Scylla and Charybdis, Ben & Jerry’s, Hansel and Gretel, Castor and Pollux...

Like all those others, Cav and Pag seem fated to remain inextricably linked in the general musical public’s collective mind even if expert opinion prefers – notwithstanding the similarity of their origins and their equally prominent place within the verismo movement – to emphasise the differences between them.

Even the introduction of the new medium of DVD failed to break the apparently indissoluble bond, for producers have generally played safe by pandering to the market’s conservatism. And, to be fair, they were probably wise to do so. Would a DVD combining Mascagni’s Cav with his I Rantzau have had more than niche appeal? Or would one where Pag was conjoined with Leoncavallo’s Gli zingari – even though the latter was deliberately written in the hope of displacing Cav as Pag’s theatrical twin - have topped the classical charts?

The last Cav/Pag DVD that I reviewed here had a particular gimmick to it: the tenor lead, Placido Domingo, was filmed singing both roles in the course of a single evening. On this new release, the two works once more share the same leading man though, as far as I know - precise filming details are not given - José Cura was allowed rather more time for a little rest and recuperation between his performances.

The Zurich production of Cav utilises a conventional set. Mamma’s tavern is at stage right and the church at stage left with the village square in between offering enough space for the torrid drama to come. The colour palette is deliberately limited, with a sombre blueish-grey predominating both in costumes and stage lighting. Those costumes place the setting, to my own inexpert eyes, anywhere between the 1930s and the 1950s, with half the chorus looking like small businessmen and their wives and the rest more like farm labourers – imagine a cross between The Godfather and Cinema Paradiso and you won’t be far off the mark.

Apart from a rather static Easter hymn, stage director Grischa Asagaroff marshals his physical and human resources to generally very good – and sometimes quite imaginative - purpose. There are not only plenty of engaging bits of business going on in the crowd scenes, but some interestingly individual and dramatically effective ways of staging the major pieces of on-stage action too. Thus, at the very opening, Turiddu sings his serenade to Lola in a post-coital face-to-face encounter on the balcony of her apartment - though, given the power of Cura’s delivery, we must presume that his bedroom exertions hadn’t been too taxing. At the other end of the opera, we actually witness, for once, Turiddu’s fight with Alfio going on in the background, even though Asagaroff’s take on it is that the former puts up his own weapon and chooses to throw himself suicidally on his adversary’s flick-knife.

The singing in this production is very strong. José Cura’s character may be a rat – and is beautifully characterised as such - but he has the voice of a lion. He ramps up the emotion to breaking point, both in his confrontation with the abandoned Satuzza and his farewell to his mother. Paoletta Marrocu is, meanwhile, certainly not the downtrodden, passive Santuzza that we too often see. She is resolute, focused and at times almost hysterical. One has the feeling that vengeance on the man who wronged her is not just an afterthought but a predetermined alternative course of action right from the start. Turiddu meets at the very least his match in her – and Marrocu’s voice is well up to equalling Cura’s in their climactic encounter on the church steps.

The other soloists are more than competent singers who add to the overall impact. Moreover, they all look spot-on and are able to act convincingly too. Mamma Lucia appears suitably worn down by life and by her wayward son’s antics; Lola is flirty and very pretty; and Alfio is, this time, not the usually encountered simple and easily cuckolded wagon driver but something of a small town mafioso - at one point we even see him passing out handfuls of cash to his cugini - from whom violence is only to be expected.

The principals’ singing is equally expert and enjoyable in Pagliacci too. Clearly, from the moment of his first appearance, Canio’s paranoia about his wife’s fidelity derives from – and is enhanced by - the hip flask from which he is perpetually taking a swig. Whether the alcoholic husband has driven Nedda to adultery or her adultery has driven him to drink remains a question as unresolved as the old riddle of the chicken and the egg. Cura’s interpretation downplays sentimentality and histrionics – but even without any Gigli-like sobs, Vesti la giubba retains all its emotional heft.

As in Cav, Cura has been matched with a strong, charismatic soprano who dominates the stage. Fiorenza Cedolins stands up to him not just dramatically in their confrontations but vocally too. Her welcome suitor Silvio and her unwelcome one Tonio both rise well to the occasion when singing with her - the former most movingly as he asks her why, if she will not run away with him, she has led him along and the latter full of malicious venom after her spiteful rejection of his advances.

The production, apparently set in the 1950s, utilises the skeleton of the set for Cav but removes the tavern and the church so as to allow space for Pag’s crowd scenes. The stage is, in fact, kept very busy for, on this outing, Canio’s troupe is made up not just of the travelling players but also by some skilful tumblers, jugglers, acrobats and even a walker on stilts. Once again the Swiss chorus – including plenty of children - is well marshalled and sings out heartily as Leoncavallo’s score requires: the director also gives them plenty of engaging bits of stage business that bring a smile to the face. The whole production has been well thought out with plenty of endearing touches. I especially liked the arrival and departure of Silvio – a Brylcreemed smoothie who soon strips down to a grubby wife-beater for some vigorous necking with Nedda – on a bicycle; the way in which the set is modified during the Intermezzo while a sort of ballet for the acrobats and tumblers takes place in half light; and the visually attractive staging of the final play-within-a-play.

Setting aside what I take to be the genuine accident of Tonio’s false red nose falling off at one point and being hastily replaced, there were a couple of dramatic miscalculations. It was, for instance, rather disconcerting to see Canio sporting a dark blue clown’s face when the words he is singing (If my face is white...) surely indicate he should be in a clown’s whiteface make-up. While that sort of thing may not, in itself, be of great importance, it is certainly enough to pull you up short and to take your mind and emotions momentarily away from the drama. Conversely, I have always taken the final words delivered on stage – La commedia e finita – as being not part of the drama but rather delivered to the real (not the stage) audience as a sort of parallel to Tonio’s original prologue: so to find them relegated on this occasion to an almost inaudible personalised musing on Canio’s part, delivered to no-one in particular, seemed simply wrong-headed.

Those minor quibbles are certainly not enough to disqualify this DVD from anything but the highest recommendation. In fact, the only production of either opera that I have recently seen that surpasses it was English National Opera’s superbly inventive staging of Pag in 2008 (see here). Sad to say, however, I’m not aware that anyone had the foresight to record that one for posterity.

Rob Maynard

Strong singing and plenty of engaging stage business