When Italian director Mario Martone’s double-header ode to verismo protagonists Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo premiered at Teatro alla Scala in 2011, it was savaged by Italian music critics and the opera house’s thorny, upper gallery demi-monde. Four years later, his gritty, divergent Cavalleria rusticanaPagliacci diptych devoted to lust, betrayal and murder bathed in dark, atmospheric shadows fared marginally better.

Violeta Urmana (Santuzza), Stefano La Colla (Turiddu) and Oksana Volkova (Lola) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Violeta Urmana (Santuzza), Stefano La Colla (Turiddu) and Oksana Volkova (Lola)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

After Mascagni's one-act opera, based on Giovanni Verga's play, was chosen by Edoardo Sonzogno, heir of the eponymous publishing house, as winner of a competition to source emerging composers, its immediate success inked a new epoch of Italian opera. Verismo, like its French naturalisme cousin, centered on lower class grizzle and regional color, theretofore uninitiated to opera theater fare in 1890 when Cavalleria rusticana premiered in Rome.

Verismo’s unflinching voyeurism of working class hardships cleared the cobwebs from of Academy-nourished Verdi, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, and Mascagni’s triumph lured Italian contemporaries to the pulpy verismo style. To wit, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci premiered in Rome two years later with its proprietary libretto based on a crime of passion in Calabria.

With fetish for local color, Martone perplexingly designated time and location as abstracts within Sergio Tramonti's black void sets where regional flavor was underpinned by Catholic imagery such as crosses, altars and sacrificial lambs. The powerful narrative (libretto by Mascagni's childhood friend Giovanni Tarigonoi-Tozzetti and co-author Guido Menasci) and its vivid places such as the church and town square were mere suggestions, assembled by old-fashioned, wooden chairs rearranged to affect locations, tucked in shadow or bathed in light.

Abstruse direction and vague atmosphere were sharpened by Pasquale Mari's steadfast lighting. Bucolic choral interludes were refined in warm russets, redolent of golden harvest. Turiddu's farewell to Mamma Lucia (sung by stately Mara Zampieri) was particularly stirring under ethereal, pure whites.

The Sicilian villager chorus, through choirmaster Bruno Casoni's peerless grooming, were penitent, orderly townsfolk costumed in Ursula Patzak’s meticulous drapes, reminiscent of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's 1902 masterpiece Il Quarto Stato, an ode to the 20th century Italian working class. Peasant skirts pooled like couture gowns and leather horse riding boots shone lustrously.

Violeta Urmana (Santuzza) and Stefano La Colla (Turiddu) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Violeta Urmana (Santuzza) and Stefano La Colla (Turiddu)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Musically straightforward, Mascagni’s charming, intensely melodic hooks were rendered technicolor beauties by maestro Carlo Rizzi. Low on shading and ruckus, Rizzi allowed negative spaces their respectful ebbs and flows.

Violeta Urmana’s generous Santuzza trod the thin line between love and hate, but at times strayed frantic, tightly-wound or too tidy for deep betrayal and pain gradations. Intense duets with Stefano La Colla’s flexible Turiddu were torrential and exhaustive – the frenzied, dramatic pacing pitched singers headlong into tense encounters, such as Marco Vratogna's confident allegretto as Alfio and Oksana Volkova’s sultry stornello as Lola.

Martone's Pagliacci, obviously inspired by Federico Fellini’s 1954 La Strada, was stylistically unhinged from Cavalleria rusticana’s lean staging. Tonio (sung by Marco Vratonga in pleasant, economic voice and menacing presence) carved the prologue in black leather, dark denim and motorcycle boots astride a deserted highway off-ramp patrolled by prostitutes on wobbly heels.

By daylight, the off-ramp framed a tatterdemalion troupe of gypsies and performers tumbling from decrepit camper vans over dead grass and graffiti-scrawled concrete pillars to the amusement of tamed, groomed, good-humored villagers in post-1945 approximate dress.

Fiorenza Cedolins (Nedda) and Marco Berti (Canio)
Fiorenza Cedolins (Nedda) and Marco Berti (Canio)

In a bid to underline the direct, verismo immediacy and to shake-up the traditional stagecraft confines, singers swarmed the stage from the auditorium's orchestra seating or sung from stage-buttressing boxes. But the convention strayed into gimmick, such as the overblown finale when Canio chased Silvio from the stage into the auditorium and killed him over ticketholder’s crossed legs.

Pagliacci's high color, closer to Verdi than Mascagni, was taken in lush, expressive cadence by Rizzi. On texture, Juan José de León sang an ingratiating Beppe and Simone Piazzola’s Silvio was an earnest, sincere schlub in a clean suit and woolen overcoat. Marco Berti's teamster Canio, in a dark suit and suspenders, was unapologetically wicked. “Vesti la giubba”, in static vignette, was played as a low-thinking man resigned to murderous rages.

Fiorenza Cedolins sang a charming Nedda, in generous voice. With a flick of short, black, corkscrew curls, she kicked off her shoes for a lighthearted "Qual fiamma avea nel guardo" and spat fire during Tonio's clumsy seduction.

There's an adage that says to appreciate the warmth of day, you have to suffer cold nights. But without a single ray of Mediterranean sun to warm his bleak production, Martone's coldest nights were unconvincing.