Twelfth Night: the decorations are down, the tree has been turfed out onto the street and Easter eggs are already in the shops. Festivities are over for another year, yet the Royal Opera House is another place where Christmas jostles shoulders with Easter. While The Nutcracker continues to sprinkle seasonal glitter, Cavalleria rusticana plunges us into Easter drama, Sicilian style. After a short break, Damiano Michieletto's terrific production – not so much paired as intertwined with Pagliacci – returns with some fresh faces for a brief final fling.

Yet it's one of the familiar faces who continues to wow the most. Elena Zilio didn't make her Royal Opera debut until 2007 (the money-grabbing Zita in Richard Jones' classic Gianni Schicchi) but her cameos have captured London's hearts ever since. Following her touching Madelon in Andrea Chénier came her glorious Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana. Rarely has a such a minor role dominated a production so much. Mamma Lucia's grief at discovering her son has been killed in a duel frames the opera and it's a measure of Zilio's acting ability that we're in tears before the prelude is even over. Defying her tiny stature, she drew the eye time after time: hearing Santuzza's confession, she kneaded away in disbelief; when Turiddu flirted with Lola in the piazza, she fixed him with the disapproving glare of a fierce matriarch. Zilio's mezzo is still powerful, clearly heard over the chorus on the Easter Hymn and her partnership with Bryan Hymel's Turiddu is immensely touching. It's hard to imagine this production being quite as successful without her.

Hymel was an excellent Turiddu, thrilling top notes bursting with braggadocio in the Brindisi, and there was plenty of snarl in his demeanour as he argued with Santuzza. Martina Belli repeated her siren Lola, her fruity mezzo making her a sultry temptress. Of the singers new to the cast, Roberto Frontali – singing both Alfio in Cav and Tonio in Pag – made a strong impression. His baritone is a little dry but is large enough in scale to ride the orchestra, his Pagliacci Prologue finding him on solid form. Soprano Anna Pirozzi replaced mezzo Elīna Garanča as Santuzza. I generally prefer a mezzo in the role, an earthier sound in this gritty drama and Pirozzi sounded strangely underpowered after her dramatic Leonora (in Trovatore) not so long ago. She didn't look entirely at ease, eyes glued to the pit where Daniel Oren jabbed the air and held his palm aloft like a traffic policeman, chorus and pit coming apart more than once.

In Pagliacci, Simona Mihai's sweet lyric soprano made for an attractive Nedda, a little small scale but believable, while Samuel Dale Johnson's smooth Silvio meant they were well matched in their love duet. Fabio Sartori was finally able to make his Royal Opera debut, performing Canio (Hymel having done double role duty thus far). The Italian tenor has a large voice, slightly cloudy in tone but with a powerful top. On first viewing, his acting seems limited in range, making little of Michieletto's odd little backstage sequence during the “play within a play” where a drunken Canio imagines Nedda's infidelities acted out in front of him. It relaxes the tension just at the point where it should be screwed tighter. It's the one case of a revolve too far in an otherwise gripping production, securely revived by Rodula Gaitanou. The contemporary setting – Mamma Lucia's panificio and the village hall where the clowns' entertainment is staged – are rooted in realism apart from the melodramatic moment when the statue of the Virgin Mary comes alive to point an accusatory finger at Santuzza.

Oren was at his strongest in the prelude and two famed intermezzos, drawing rich playing from the Covent Garden strings. Elsewhere, he tended to stretch the tempo out too far, but this didn't detract from an often thrilling verismo matinee.