Opera Australia’s Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci uses beautiful subtleties to link two magnificent operas

Opera Australia’s latest production of Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci is actually two operas performed back to back. Two quite distinct operas in their composition, and yet they lend themselves to the other so easily that it’s odd to try and think of them as distinct. This production, in particular, uses beautiful subtleties to link them even further.

The first, Cavalleria Rusticana, opens with the tragedy to come – a man has been shot dead to the horror of the surrounding crowd. We then follow the moving stage platform backwards into a day past to witness the events leading up to the shooting. It’s a magnificent staging – with the moving platform revealing a bakery on one-half and its grass strewn outside on the other.

OA Cavalleria Rusticana

The story introduces a distraught and ostracised Santuzza (Dragana Radakovic), who loved and gave herself to the man Turiddu (the first of Diego Torre’s roles) who has now left her to pursue a married woman (one to whom he was engaged to before leaving for the army). The woman, Lola (Sian Pendry), seems to crave the drama and attention, flirting with Turiddu despite knowing her husband Alfio (the first of José Carbó’s roles) has returned.

Cavalleria Rustican and Pagliacci

Soon, in her crazed state, Santuzza tells Alfio of the deceit only to instantly regret it. Alfio is bent on revenge however and proceeds to engage Turiddu – eventually shooting him and leading us to our opening scene.

There is some wonderful acting on behalf of the ensemble here- bringing the stage to bustling life. More so than previous operas there is quite a place for this acting as well as singing, with distinct members being only actors and longer periods of instrumental serving as time without voice to focus on the scene. It’s a similar feeling to watching a Romeo and Juliet, or West Side Story – the story bringing a few parallels and providing that same foreboding. Set around Easter there is a wonderful scene with a Virgin statue that takes you quite by surprise when it’s actress moves!

Nicely placed within all its unfolding is the crowd gathering to see the latest poster by the travelling group of actors who are visiting soon to perform… Pagliacci. A most amusing piece of meta serves as Turiddu passes the poster to gaze at himself briefly (as Torres performs as both Turiddu and Canio/Pagliacci). There is also a side story featuring the baker and a woman who comes to town with the posters- leading to a sweet kiss and lots of happy smiling.

Despite the main tragedy, it’s an entertaining watch, and as the audience files out for intermission there are many murmurs of “I quite enjoyed that”.

In the second opera Pagliacci we’re basically placed right back where we left off – with the players coming to town. Soon we understand that the sweet kissing couple we saw we actually an actress from the band of players called Nedda (Anna Princeva) and her lover Silvio (Samuel Dundas), whom she is carefully hiding from her jealous and aggressive husband Canio (Diego Torre, who will also play Pagliacci in the play). The same crowd seems to have quickly gotten over their shock at having just witnessed a shooting and is now bustling about quite excitedly for the performance.

Cavalleria Rustican and Pagliacci

Tonio (the second of Carbó’s roles), who plays the fool in the band of players, attempts to force himself on Nedda – who fights him off and laughs at him. Angered he soon stumbles upon the lovers and quickly brings Canio to the scene. Canio flies into a furious rage and pulls a knife on Nedda demanding to know the name of her escaped lover. Refusing Canio nearly kills her, before his staff exclaim that the show needs to go on shortly. Distraught and out of his mind Canio sings the magnificent Vesti la Giubba – the line “laugh, clown, at your broken love!” particularly resonating.

OA Pagliaccia

On stage, the play unsettlingly mirrors the events on our stage – and with a beautiful display of more meta, we see the stage split into the play on stage and the events transpiring on our stage. Soon the onstage audience becomes unsettled as the acting becomes all to real- the knife is pulled, down go both Nedda and lover, and Tonio concludes, “The comedy is finished”.

The revolving stage is again brought wonderfully into play here, rotating through the different scenes. The reoccurring theme of mindless jealousy in the face of adulterous infidelity again ends in bitter tragedy- yet this time the adulteress is slaughtered alongside her lover.

OA Pagliaccia

As a more positive aside there is also a beautiful moment of closure for our remaining women of Cavalleria Rusticana during Pagliacci – Santuzza is reunited with Turiddu’s mother and shares a moment of revelation that she is bearing Turiddu’s child. The two exit offstage in each other’s arms. A bittersweet touch to further the entwining of the two stories.

Alongside these most touching and tragic moments is, of course, the players who play them- Diego Torre is ever the crowd favourite with his magnificent voice. He easily continues both his roles, and deftly hits all the right places with his Vesti la Giubba. The ladies Radakovic and Princeva are both outstanding, their moments of quiet solo (in particular Princeva’s Stridono Iassu) are emotional and charged with feeling. Equally outstanding is Dominica Matthew’s as Mamma Lucia (Turiddu’s heartbroken mother).

But my favourite performer of the evening was José Carbó. In Cavalleria Rusticana he is the confident baritone, his fierce anger somewhat controlled and channelled into his deep voice and sharp eyes. In Pagliacci he opens our Prologue – charismatically explaining the truth in the events about to unfold, demonstrating costumes, drawing fake blood, and entreating on us “rather than dwelling on costume, (to) consider our souls”.  He then becomes the limping Tonio who is repulsive yet keeps that warm baritone. My eyes were drawn to Carbó whenever he was on stage.

OA Cavalleria Rusticana

This production of Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci was one of the best operas I have seen in recent times – the staging, direction, casting, and the operas themselves, were all captivating and magnificently executed. I left feeling quite satisfied – the length not troubling in the face of such wonderful work.

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The opera double act Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci will be performed at Sydney Opera House until 4th February. For more information and to book visit opera.org.au

Photo credit (c) Keith Saunders