The recently resuscitated New York City Opera inaugurated its first fully fledged season since 2013 with a double bill of Rachmaninov’s Aleko and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, energetically conducted by James Meena, Opera Carolina’s General Director. It’s a juxtaposition that has apparently never been attempted before earlier this year when Meena led his own company in several performances taking place in Charlotte.

Inna Dukach (Zemfira) and Stefan Szkafarowsky (Aleko) © Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera
Inna Dukach (Zemfira) and Stefan Szkafarowsky (Aleko)
© Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera

The plots of the two short operas, both composed in 1892, have a lot in common. The action takes place over a single day, involving a group of traveling social outcasts: gypsies in Aleko and group of commedia dell’arte performers in Pagliacci. In both, a jealous older man stabs to death his younger, defiant wife and her lover. Furthermore, in both librettos the murders are somehow foretold. The Old Gypsy, Aleko’s father-in-law, recalls – with poise and calm as interpreted here by bass Kevin Thompson – how the woman he adored eloped with her lover, leaving him behind to take care of their daughter, Zemfira. In Pagliacci, Canio and his wife Nedda are meant to play in front of the villagers the ancient story of the cuckold clown and his cunning spouse Colombina. The distraught Canio figures out that the words in the play are the same – “Quelle stesse parole” – as the ones uttered in real life.

The music is where the two volets of the evening’s diptych radically differ: Aleko was composed when Rachmaninov was 19 and graduating from the Moscow Conservatory. The music is fully anchored in the Russian tradition, sounding mostly Tchaikovskian, especially in its interlude. With its balance, its lyricism, its rich, modal writing, the opera is an exceptional accomplishment for someone so young. In absolute terms though, it lacks the deep portrayal of characters, the immediately recognizable tunes and the overall intensity of such staples of the repertoire as Pagliacci, one of the most revered examples of Italian verismo.

Scene from <i>Pagliacci</i> © Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera
Scene from Pagliacci
© Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera

Director Lev Pugliese and the scenic designer John Farrell proposed a unifying set for both dramas. The background is dominated by a huge freight train, transformed into a makeshift theater in Pagliacci. On one side of the performing space there is a derelict two storey building, on the other, a little podium. The smallish stage of the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center got easily crowded, mainly in Aleko when the gypsy dancers Yana Volkova and Andrei Kisselev had to find room between soloists, choristers and an exaggerated number of props. Besides updated sets and costumes suggesting a mid 20th-century action, the production is very traditional indeed, primarily in the manner the protagonists were asked to interact and move around.

Francesco Anile (Canio) and Jessica Rose Cambio (Nedda) © Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera
Francesco Anile (Canio) and Jessica Rose Cambio (Nedda)
© Sarah Shatz | New York City Opera

Musically it was a solid, if not outstanding evening. The New York City Opera orchestra, under the baton of James Meena, found quickly its footing after minor hesitations in Aleko’s prologue. The chorus was steady, but not very subtle. There was no bad singing, but only one of the soloists stood really out: Francesco Anile's Canio, with a flexible, stentorian tenor pouring out his heart in the famous “No, Pagliaccio no son!” In the more restrained role of Aleko, the Russian that abandoned the civilized world for a bohemian life only to be cast away by the Gypsies, bass Stefan Szkafarowsky was firm and reliable. His cavatina was powerfully delivered and quite well phrased, though lacking brilliance. The two sopranos – Inna Dukach as Zemfira and Jessica Rose Cambio as Nedda – balanced coquettishness with authentic despair. Both were less comfortable in the upper register. As the Young Gipsy, Jason Kern tried to summon sufficient conviction as the weakest link of the love triangle. Gustavo Feulien was too self-centered as Silvio, Nedda’s lover. As Tonio, the fourth main character in Pagliacci, the reliable baritone Michael Corvino brought forward with theatrical flair the character’s meanness and vindictiveness.

Not so many years ago, New York City Opera used to have a clearly defined role as the “second” operatic company in New York, mixing traditional and daring productions, staging operas incompatible with Metropolitan’s cavernous home. One should cheer for the new General Director Michael Capasso and hope that he can quickly bring back the company to its former luster.