Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, the two best-known examples of Italian verismo, have been performed as a double bill for so long, that any attempt to integrate them tighter into one consistent staging makes sense. In this respect, José Cura's mise en scène, first seen in Liège and now revived with modifications for the San Francisco Opera by Jose Maria Condemi, can be considered a qualified success.

Of course, the two librettos share a series of common elements to start with. The action for both takes place in Southern Italy (Sicily and Calabria). As expected in verismo plots, the characters are regular folk, neither gods nor heroes. Both operas explore the deeds and feelings of several dramatis personae linked by love, lust and jealousy. Passions are so high that they end in death. There is, though, a significant difference: if Cavalleria's plot is quite conventional, Pagliacci – addressing similarities between what’s happening in real life and what’s occuring on stage – is more “modern”, more able to stir the interest of viewers familiar with Fellini’s La Strada. Unfortunately, various productions of the diptych rarely take into consideration this asymmetry. The one discussed here certainly didn’t.

Cura, signing the scenography as well as the stage direction, moved the action from 19th-century Italy to La Boca, an Italian quarter of Buenos Aires, during the 1920s. In case the setting – with a piazzetta, colorful two-stories houses, and a rather shabby church façade in the background – isn’t clear enough, the word “tango” appears in large letters on the storefront of the little restaurant in the corner. The striking element of the scenery is a large mural (inspired by a real one at the entrance of La Boca) depicting circus scenes but also functioning as a memento mori, a totally fitting comment on Pagliacci’s story. However, the effort to displace the action to Cura’s native Argentina seems gratuitous. It doesn’t tell us anything more about the characters.

What the tenor-turned-director smartly does, though, is not only having the two operas share the same set but also linking the two tales. We see characters from one appearing in the other and vice versa. Mamma Lucia is running the tavern where Silvio is a waiter. At the beginning of Cavalleria, Nedda and the clowns advertise their performance. Amid the townsfolk moving around in Pagliacci, one can see an obviously pregnant Santuzza. Cura introduces a scene with a procession carrying Turiddu’s coffin. Among the mourners is the composer Leoncavallo himself who, supported by a silent Mascagni, starts singing Pagliacci’s prologue, a commentary about actors having the same feelings as real people. The action abruptly shifts several months later to the day of Ferragosto.

Not all the directorial interventions were as well thought through. Doubles of Lola and Turiddu slow-dance a tango, distracting the audience from listening to the beautiful Intermezzo. Two seemingly transgender characters find their place amidst the circus performers without bringing anything to the action.

The soloists were led by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, interpreting Santuzza with subtle, controlled power, on the verge of despair. Her confession, in dialogue with Turiddu’s mother (Jill Grove) was heart-wrenching. Announced as being under the weather, Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian sang Nedda mellifluously, especially in her upper register, but was not always able to suggest the character’s youthful fickleness. That was not the case for mezzo Laura Krumm who sparkled vocally and physically in the smallish role of Lola.

Making his house debut in the triple role of Alfio, Leoncavallo and Tonio, Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias displayed a beautiful, dark legato but also a limited dynamic range. He was at his best in Pagliacci’s Prologue. Roberto Aronica demonstrated again the power of his gleaming instrument but also occasional inflexibility as the impulsive Turiddu. His chemistry with Semenchuk’s Santuzza was also quite limited. Marco Berti was convincing as Canio, arguably the most tragic figure of all. His “Vesti la giubba” was full of pathos and bitterness. Baritone David Pershall didn’t show too much as Silvio, Nedda’s love interest, but young tenor Amitai Pati deserves special kudos for singing Beppo’s serenade exquisitely.

The orchestra and chorus conducted by Daniele Callegari acquitted themselves well, rendering skilfully the Mascagni and Leoncavallo's melodic treasures. Occasionally, tempi dragged, but not too much. Overall, a performance that deserves to be seen and heard.