Death Clown for Cutie (Cav and Pag at the Met)

 Men are sensitive and easily injured souls, as ten minutes in any internet comment section would tell you. Such is also the gist of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, the august double bill of verismo which presents us twice with the even more august situation of baritones interfering with soprano-tenor relationships and it all getting very bloody. In the Met’s new production, Fabio Luisi makes these high octane scores sound quite classy, but otherwise the two diverge: a dreary, clunky Cav is followed by a fun and punchy Pag. Oh, one other thing in common: for better and for worse, Marcelo Alvarez is the tenor. I shouldn’t be putting that last, which might give you an idea of what is going on here.

Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo, Pagliacci. Metropolitan Opera, 4/18/15, new production directed by David McVicar with sets by Rae Smith, costumes by Moritz Junge, lights by Paule Constable, choreography by Andrew George. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Marcelo Alvarez (Turiddu and Canio), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Santuzza), Jane Bunnell (Mama Lucia), George Gagnidze (Alfio and Tonio), Ginger Costa-Jackson (Lola), Andrew Stenson (Beppe), Patricia Racette (Nedda) and Lucas Meachem (Silvio)

Sir David McVicar is perhaps the ideal director for Peter Gelb’s Met. In productions like Maria Stuarda, Il trovatore, and Anna Bolena, he has been reliably competent. He can manage the giant Met stage space, he usually gets detailed and natural performances from singers, he updates settings gently and with a slightly austere aesthetic. His work looks “modern” without unduly scaring Met old timers.

While those productions are better than those of many of his colleagues (cough Bartlett Sher cough), they are character-focused and their intended effect depends on the acting and energy of the cast.* When a McVicar production gets the right singers, it can be good. With the wrong cast or in an under rehearsed revival, it turns dull. (This is quite different from Zeffirelli productions—such as the Cav/Pag this new production replaces—which depend on spectacular, overwhelming visuals and strive to produce more or less the same end result no matter who is singing.) Unfortunately, McVicar’s Cav/Pag put all their eggs in the dicey basket of tenor Marcelo Alvarez’s acting skills. As any regular Met-goer knows, Marcelo Alvarez is not a good actor. Actually, that may be an understatement. This is trouble.

Dark Cav with questionable choreography

Conductor Fabio Luisi gives both operas an exciting, dark sheen, less loud and bangy than one often hears in this rep and appropriately tense. The chorus turns in a good Easter Hymn. But production-wise, the Cavalleria is a puzzling failure. I think McVicar was going for a bleak portrait of a judgmental society, but the result is a monotonous, drab production which tamps down the score’s contrasts. The cast appears in dark, uniform-like black, costumes which look vaguely Puritan-like in their severity and erase individuality (Lola’s long hair marks her as a strumpet and Alfio’s watch chain indicates his wealth. That’s about all we get.) The stage presents us with towering dark brick arches and a large, low platform with a single table, a kind of implied theater-in-theater which implies that these characters are performing morality and always on display to each other. Often the chorus is surrounding the platforming, watching.

Westbroek and Alvarez

What complicates things is that this platform, at seemingly random moments, begins to rotate on a turntable. The obvious symbolic interpretation of this is that we are examining this town from every angle, but the impression is that everyone onstage freezes and the stage starts moving instead. It tends to stop the action in its tracks. Moreover, McVicar’s formal, ritualistic bent emphasizes the clunkiest structural seams in a score which attempts to flow continuously. For example, for the final section of their duet, Santuzza and Turiddu carefully pose (she kneeling, he standing behind her), directly facing Luisi’s baton, and hold this position until the end of the number.

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Santuzza is at the drama’s center, and her loneliness and isolation is the production’s strongest and most poignant thread. She barely leaves the stage, witnessing most of the action from a chair downstage right. Westbroek is a sympathetic figure, but the production is too stiff to let her really let it all out. Her middle range sounds sweet but the high notes are very spread and wobbly. I don’t think she’s terribly well-suited to Italian roles; I could use some more morbidezza.

Moreover, she doesn’t have much to play against. Alvarez’s Turiddu is petulant and wimpy and, well, that’s the character but he doesn’t make him interesting. Alvarez can sing Turiddu—and Canio too, producing an attractive, Italianate sound. But he still sounds like a lyric tenor. He lacks the raw power and focus as both a singer and an actor to convey danger, violence, and inebriation. (I was reminded of his Don José in the old Zeffirelli Carmen, which ended when he strolled over to Olga Borodina and poked at her with a knife.) He’s too controlled. Acting-wise, he relies on the same number of gestures as Johan Botha, and it’s even the same one, with one or both arms slightly extended, palms turned upwards.

The neckline of a strumpet (Lola)

The production doesn’t help Alvarez as much as it could. The bleak aesthetic doesn’t do much visually for Turiddu’s descent into drunken madness. With the exception of George Gagnidze doing his usual effective villainy as Alfio, the other characters don’t really stand out. Jane Bunnell sounded fine as Mama Lucia and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Lola swung her hips like a Maddalena in training and sounded like one too. Also, because it’s a McVicar production, there is some choreography by Andrew George, here an very strange specimen during Alfio’s “Il cavallo scalpita,” which is dramatically unnecessary, looks like a zombie tap dance, and is not very well executed.

Patricia Racette as Nedda

In contrast, McVicar’s Pagliacci is a considerably more spirited affair, full of schticky vaudeville antics. Pagliacci is set in the late 1940s, I think, with the clowns operating out of an old truck. The same brick arches are now decorated with laundry and power lines, there is a confetti canon and a very shiny blue and gold curtain. Gagnidze as Tonio opened with an exceptionally smooth and dramatic “Si può?” in a scene which vaguely recalls Michael Mayer’s Vegas Rigoletto. (Tonio is a hunchback here.)

Very merry Pag

The central action is staged in a straightforward and effective way. Patricia Racette makes Nedda vulnerable, anguished, and fun, the most complex character of the whole evening. Unfortunately her high notes are spread and fluttery (the same issue as Westbroek), but she sings with a sincerity and directness that is disarming. Gagnidze’s Tonio is comparatively simple but effectively menacing. Surrounding them is a lot of comedy. While the setting still looks Italian, the clowns here practice the kind of vaudeville you might know from the musical Gypsy, a rather more American affair. Plates are spun, things are thrown around, there is shaving cream. It is charming but I wasn’t quite laughing in the aisles–while it’s almost there, you can tell that the opera crew are, well, not professional vaudevillians in their timing and physical comedy, and a lot of us (including me) are too far away to appreciate some of the finer details (I assume). As they say, dying is easy, comedy is hard. One nice touch has the onstage audience applauding the clowns’ sets, a joke at the expense of the clap-happy Met audience that the audience around me, at least, did not seem to notice.

After catching Nedda with the tallest baritone in town, Alvarez vestis la giubba, a staging that puts him in front of the curtain in what should be a moment of searing intensity which just comes across as dutiful. After the merriment of the clown act, the final turn to murder needs to be shocking and very clearly defined, but he doesn’t really pull it off. A bigger voice would help, more control over his acting would help, and I could see another tenor having a big success in this production upon revival. Alvarez has headlined a number of Met productions in recent years because he can credibly sing a number of roles for which there aren’t many options. This doesn’t mean he’s the ideal choice for a production like this one, though there aren’t too many gentlemen out there who would be. (I’m sure Canio is the role Rolando Villazón was born to act, but unfortunately he was born to sing second banana Beppe.) Should Roberto Alagna or Jonas Kaufmann cruise into this production, however, put it into your calendar.

Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci continue through May 8; the HD broadcast is Saturday, April 25. Any other casting suggestions for a future revival?

Photos copyright Met Opera/Cory Weaver.

*Some of McVicar’s productions elsewhere have often been more playful, creative, and taken more risks, for example his Faust and Flute, both for the ROH, and the Giulio Cesare which premiered at Glyndebourne before being seen at the Met a few seasons ago.

Video: “Vesti la giubba,” excerpt

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  1. It's terrible to hear Westbroek sounding like this. What do you think of her? She's been one of my favorites for the past few years but while I thought she sounded fantastic earlier this season, the Andrea Cheniers were very poorly sung and this run didn't sound too great. Here's hoping.

  2. I hesitate to offer a diagnosis; I haven't heard her sing for a while but this was a disappointment. I think her top has always been the shakiest part of her voice (I wrote something to this effect when I saw her sing Forza in around 2012!) and since she's a soprano singing Santuzza and Didon I think she is well aware of this. Also hoping!

  3. She canceled her Isolde at Bayreuth so she must be somewhat aware of her limitations. Her voice actually reminds me a bit of Mattilas' in that the voice is absolutely gorgeous and then abruptly just stops blooming above the stuff in a way that is very jolting. Like Mattila, she's said she's more interested in the Italian repertoire which is a mistake IMO. That being said, check out her Minnie because she's magical in the role.

  4. You got a nice mention in Alex Ross' "New Yorker" write up on this production. Not sure that I have an alternative tenor recommendation besides Alvarez for you, unless his sort-of namesake Marcello Giordani comes to mind.

  5. thanks to the Alex Ross mention, I found this blog. Absolutely terrific. I went to this production twice (once too many, but had to take visitors there). I thought what made it wonderful for me was Fabio Luisi's conducting, so lacking in the usual bluster, beautifully paced and the MET orchestra performed magnificently completely overshadowing the ridiculous turntable shenanigans. I will be following the blog closely with the greatest interest

  6. I used to be very fond of hearing Marcelo Alvarez, especially in houses smaller than the Met or ROH. As Rodolfo or Werther in Vienna or his first Manrico in Parma, he could hold the audience in his hand. Since he's been doing a lot at the Met he seems to me to be a bit overblown in gestures and so forth. I mentioned that to my partner at a Met HD performance of Trovatore; partner said, 'He's loud enough; he's not singing with power.' I miss the way he used to sing!