Pagliacci begins with a prologue in which the clown, Tonio, explains that their show is “a slice of life” about real people, so one could forgive director Pippo Delbono for preceding Pagliacci's verismo twin – Cavalleria rusticana – with his own prologue. Microphone in hand, he addressed the audience at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma to briefly recount a couple of anecdotes, also printed in the programme book, to relate why Easter touches him. Unfortunately, that was not the last Delbono was to be seen – or heard – during the evening, severely testing the crowd's patience.

Pippo Delbono
© Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Delbono is an advocate of experimental theatre and his work features those on the margins of society, such as Bobò, a deaf-mute the director rescued from a 45-year incarceration in an asylum near Naples. Often leading him by the hand, Delbono steered Bobò about his stage – to hold the cross during the Easter Hymn, to pour Turiddu a glass of wine, to ride the clowns' cart or, dressed as Harlequin, to join Down Syndrome actor Gianluca Ballarè to flap arms to accompany Nedda's aria “Stridono lassù”. Is this inclusive theatre or exploitation?

The Pagliacci troupe, including Carmela Remigio (Nedda), Matteo Falcier (Beppe) and Bobò
© Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Both Cavalleria rusticana – previously seen in Naples – and the brand new Pagliacci are self-indulgent in the extreme. Dressed in formal dinner jacket for Cav, Delbono pranced around the stage, “conducting”, striding about opening doors during the Alfio—Santuzza duet, showering heart-shaped confetti into the stalls. Both works are set in a panelled interior with a steep rake, but are essentially static affairs, concert performances with the chorus seated around the fringes for the most part, principals left to stand-and-deliver stock gestures. At the end of Cav's opening chorus, I couldn't help but think about how much storytelling Damiano Michieletto had related in his magnificent Royal Opera staging by this point. Delbono's production had more to tell us about the director than the operas' characters. If it was designed to ruffle the audience's feathers, it worked. Appearing before Pagliacci to deliver another spoken prologue, cries of “Basta!” went up, which turned to whistles of derision when he interrupted yet again after Canio's “Vesti la giubba”.

Anita Rachvelishvili (Santuzza)
© Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

It was opera as circus, which is a shame because the musical performances were enjoyable. Making his Opera di Roma debut, Carlo Rizzi led vigorous accounts of both scores, the orchestral playing full of passion. Woodwinds, seated directly on Rizzi's left, added plenty of character, especially to Nedda's aria, and an on-stage trumpeter in full clown rig led the Pagliacci parade. Both casts were solid rather than inspired. Cavalleria rusticana, which premiered in this house in 1890, featured the wonderful Anita Rachvelishvili, whose earthy chest register was perfect for Santuzza. Alfred Kim was a bullish Turiddu, his tenor set resolutely to fortissimo, but Armenian baritone Gevorg Hakobyan showed sensitive colouring as Alfio, later a scheming Tonio in Pagliacci. Martina Belli's plush mezzo made for a sexy siren Lola (an interpretation familiar to London audiences) while Anna Malavasi was a sympathetic Mamma Lucia.

Carmela Remigio (Nedda) and Fabio Sartori (Canio)
© Yasuko Kageyama | Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

I reviewed Fabio Sartori's Canio recently in Michieletto's staging and felt the same about him here. He makes a big sound, slightly occluded in projection, and he brought the house down with “Vesti la giubba”. But his acting is severely limited, Delbono often allowing him to perch on a strategically-placed chair. Dionisios Sourbis' woolly vibrato made for a disappointing Silvio, but Matteo Falcier's vibrant tenor was a delightful Beppe. The highlight was Carmela Remigio as a sweet-toned Nedda, “Stridono lassù” utterly charming, making it all the more disappointing that Delbono chose to upstage her with his dancing clowns.