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Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
Pagliacci (1892)
Prologue/Tonio – Roman Burdenko (baritone)
Nedda – Ailyn Pérez (soprano)
Canio – Brandon Jovanovich (tenor)
Peppe – Marco Ciaponi (tenor)
Silvio – Mattia Olivieri (baritone)
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana (1890)
Santuzza – Anita Rachvelishvili (mezzo)
Lola – Rihab Chaieb (soprano)
Turridu – Brian Jagde (tenor)
Alfio – Roman Burdenko (baritone)
Lucia – Elena Zilio (alto)
Chorus of Dutch National Opera, Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderkoor
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Lorenzo Viotti (conductor)
Stage Director: Robert Carsen
Rec. 18 & 29 September 2019 at Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, Netherlands
HD 16:9, PCM Stereo & DTS-MA 5.1; Regions A, B, C
NAXOS Blu-ray NBD0117V [157 mins]

Cavalleria Rusticana (Cav) and Pagliacci (Pag) are often referred to as opera’s Siamese twins, but I bet that if you’ve ever encountered them together, be it on stage, on DVD or on CD, it has always been Cav that has come first. Why? There’s no rule about it, so why should it?

Director Robert Carsen reverses the order in this production for Dutch National Opera, but it isn’t a mere whim. It’s a key part of his vision for this pairing of works because one flows from the other.

Carsen’s overreaching theme is taken from Tonio’s prologue that opens Pagliacci: the boundary between fictional emotions as portrayed on stage and the real emotions of the actors/singers themselves. This runs like the letters in a stick of rock through both productions, and Carsen suggests that the drama that motivates them springs from real life, not just a fictional scenario. The chorus, for example, emerge from the front rows of the audience at the very beginning of Pag. The Prologue addresses the audience with the house lights up, and that’s also the final image at the end of Cav. When Canio gets dressed into his stage costume for the play-within-a-play, it’s identical to his everyday dress and, even at the concluding curtain calls, the principals are called out from within the chorus.

So Carsen is interested in blurring the boundary of artifice, but he doesn’t do it through showy stagecraft. In fact, Pagliacci works through minimal scenery, barring multiple proscenium arches, and Cav uses little more than music stands and theatrical mirrors. That’s because it picks up right from the final murder of Pag, and is set backstage at the theatre where the story plays out as a love triangle between members of the chorus.

You can look elsewhere for your Zeffirellish naturalism, but if you want theatrical realism then this is the performance to go for. I found this the most dramatically powerful, completely convincing performance of either opera I’ve seen in a very long time. That’s principally due to the powerfully engaging performances that Carsen draws from his singers, and I include the chorus in that, too, who are given a lot to do but rise to it with aplomb: in fact, I don’t think I've ever seen an opera chorus acting so well. The principals also throw themselves into their roles with dramatic conviction, so that Carsen’s exploration of verisimilitude works really well.

The musical performances are great, too. In Pag, Brandon Jovanovich is an enormously powerful but always musical Canio. He’s a highly physical presence, underlying the element of threat that is so important with the character, and he’s a touch shouty at the climax of “Vesti la giubba”, but who can blame him for that? His deranged behaviour in the final scene, where he seems to be channelling Joaquin Phoenix as Joker, is gripping. Ailyn Pérez is a sexy, lyrical Nedda, who yearns to be free and brings a wonderful adrenaline rush in her aria. Mattia Olivieri sings Silvio with a warm, lyrical baritone, ably contrasted with the brutal streak of Roman Burdenko’s Tonio.

Anita Rachvelisvili is the undisputed star of Cav. She sings Santuzza as an unashamed mezzo, and her chest voice is thrilling in this music. However, her top notes don’t carry a hint of strain, and she is a hugely compelling stage presence throughout. Brian Jagde’s love rat Turridu is rakish and appealing, never a caricature villain, and he sings with electric energy. Rihab Chaieb is a light-voiced Lola, but she’s so appealing that it’s completely clear why Turridu is besotted with her. Elena Zilio brings star power to the brief role of Mamma Lucia, and Burdenko’s Alfio is brusque and down to earth.

The orchestra sound sensational, too, and the (frighteningly youthful looking) conductor, Lorenzo Viotti, shapes both scores with a masterful sense of ebb and flow: he is unusually restrained in both intermezzos, for example, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t just throw the kitchen sink at the music but shapes everything with care and discretion. Blooming strings and clean winds and brass are all captured in beautifully clear surround sound, setting the seal on an excellent release.

I’ve watched a lot of streamed operas during the pandemic lockdowns, including both of the Met’s Cav & Pags, and I have several more traditional DVD performances on my shelves. However, I found this more involving than any of them. It shows how little you need lavish scenery when you have a successful directorial concept and performers who are willing to throw themselves (sometimes literally!) into the sheer power of these works’ drama. To all but the most paid-up traditionalists, this is warmly recommended.

Simon Thompson

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