Sunday, September 11, 2016

Russian vs. Italian Crime Passionnel

Rachmaninoff’s Aleko // Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
New York City Opera
Rose Theater
September 8, 2016

Image credit: NYC Opera
New York City Opera opened its 2016/17 season with a double bill of Rachmaninoff’s Aleko and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The core of the two plots is very similar: there’s a group of itinerant folks (a band of gypsies and a vaudeville-circus troupe, respectively), a love triangle forms along the way, and a jealous scorned husband kills both his treacherous wife and her lover. In one work the framing for the crime passionnel is very Russian (gloomy, melancholic, dark, nostalgic), in the other pretty much Italian (sunny, lively, funny, visceral).

A Russian ballet features prominently in Rachmaninoff's Aleko
Photo credit: Tina Fineberg/New York Times
I was never a big fan of Pagliacci per se, possibly because it’s usually paired with Cavalleria Rusticana, which I have always found more compelling, since nobody can rival a Sicilian drama of amorous jealousy. This time, however, the Leoncavallo work was paired with Rachmaninoff and for the first time I found myself raving about Pagliacci. When it comes to torrid murderous jealousy, an Italian opera will always, always beat a Russian one in my mind. Italians just do loud explosive jealousy better – must be the warmer climate.

The gypsies camp in an abandoned rail station
Photo credit: NYC Opera
But, Aleko in and it of itself was an interesting discovery. The score was in many instances sweeping, melodic and lively in a folkloristic, gypsy way. Many arias and duets were lovely and highly lyrical, the dramatic finale definitely chilling and heart-breaking. However, the whole package did not come together convincingly. While there were some highs (the thunderous bass Kevin Thompson in the role of the old gypsy, the chorus, the dance number), I could not get over the fact that the title character (bass Stefan Szkafarowsky) seemed miscast in the part. While vocally capable, he came across as too old of a husband for the young Zemfira (soprano Inna Dukach) and his jealous outbursts sounded tired instead of raging and not really convincing as he lay splayed out on the ground again and again. I almost feel like Szkafarowsky should have swapped roles with Thompson, both vocally and acting-wise. Finally, the simple sets looked good enough but had some cheap touches such as a huge papier-mâché mutton roasting on a fire that was just distracting and sad to look at. All in all, and maybe because this is a rarity, the singing and acting seemed less rehearsed than the far more popular Pagliacci.

The circus has come to town!
Photo credit: Sarah Schatz
When the curtain rose for the Leoncavallo opera after intermission, it felt like someone had turned the lights on and the real party was ready to begin. The sets were pretty much the same: a more or less abandoned train station with a wagon resting among weeds in the center and two simple wood houses on the sides. But, the Italian setting was inundated with a bright warm sunniness and truly felt like night and day when compared to that of Aleko.

The Fellini-esque elements were palpable
Photo credit: Film still from Federico Fellini's La Strada
At the very beginning, a woman in a short blonde wig came to the foreground under a stage light, playing a trumpet announcing the upcoming show within the show. And so it was clear that we were in for a La Strada (Fellini)-inspired interpretation. There are indeed points of contact between the opera and the movie: itinerant circus performers including a woman who is tied to an oppressive man turns her affections to another. Granted, Nedda is way more together than Fellini’s Gelsomina and Canio does have a softer and more sympathetic side than Zampanò. However, the suggestion that both works share a nostalgic helpless raw desperation is an interesting one and it was a treat to discover the different Fellini undertones. La Strada elements shined through mostly in the treatment of Nedda, who was cast as something of a Giuletta Masina type especially in the second half of the opera when she gets decked out in her vaudeville costume, again dons a bobbed blonde wig, and paints a dot on the tip of her nose.

Never double cross a clown
Photo credit: Sarah Schatz
Pagliacci’s cast was solid and compelling across the board, from the chorus of children to the leading roles. Tenor Francesco Anile as Canio had a bright, almost metallic sound that was great for the role. His Vesti la giubba was high and alive in its poignancy and in the final No, non sono Pagliaccio, his rage and violent desperation were utterly moving at the most visceral level. One could feel that this is a role Mr. Anile possesses entirely. His acting was extremely convincing too, delivering a complex Canio who was violent, yes, but also in love and crushingly devastated. Soprano Jessica Rose Cambio as Nedda was a delight, mastering the role both vocally and acting-wise and ranging from loving and free spirited (with her lover Silvio, here handsomely portrayed by tenor Gustavo Feulien), to feisty (with Tonio, baritone Michael Corvino), to tragically splitting herself in the last scenes between the cheerful vaudeville role of Colombina and her final moments defying her violent husband.

The abandoned box car becomes the makeshift vaudeville stage
Photo credit: Sarah Schatz
The two works shared the same artistic and creative team: James Meena (conductor), Lev Pugliese (director), John Farrell (scenic designer) Iidiko Debreczeni (costume designer) and Susan Roth (lighting designer), which was particularly impressive given the radical stylistic and musical differences of the two pieces. All in all this was a brave and diverse double bill that set an ambitious tone for the new season of the recently resuscitated company. The City Opera is back or so it would seem.

Fellini-esque costumes and make up resonate
Photo credit: Fellini's La Strada
Dun da da da! È arrivata City Opera!

– Lei & Lui

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