The Boston Lyric Opera planned a more traditional presentation of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana – four performances over the course of a week at the Cutler Majestic Theater. Accounting for the Delta variant complicated logistics, however. Proper distancing, for one, was impossible. So the venue was changed to the Leader Bank Pavilion, a tented space which usually hosts pop and rock concerts. Open on three sides, it is located on the waterfront in the burgeoning Seaport District. The company had 45 days to adapt themselves and the production to a space lacking the Majestic’s raked seating and sight lines, pit, lights, flies, backstage and acoustics. The stage setting was pared down to a number of bright yellow café chairs, rearranged to demarcate certain spaces like the church and to represent groups of people, such as the patrons enjoying Turiddu’s largesse in Mamma Lucia’s wine shop.

Michelle Johnson (Santuzza)
© Liza Voll

Three dancers not only took on the role of the villagers but, like a Greek chorus, commented on the action with their movements and even intervened to block or redirect the five characters, each of whom was dressed in a bright primary color – red, blue, green, yellow or purple. The orchestra occupied the back of the stage and faced not out, but stage left, with the chorus behind them in the stage right corner. Both the orchestra/chorus area and the individual singers were miked and the action was projected with subtitles on screens flanking the stage. In a nod to the last season BLO mounted, and as a way for the company to say, welcome back, Javier Arrey performed a genial, robust Prologue to Pagliacci before Cavalleria began.

Reduced to its essentials, the success of this production rested squarely on the shoulders of singers and orchestra. Atlas couldn’t have done better than this strong cast and David Angus and his adroit orchestra. The white hot intensity and conviction of the duet between Santuzza and Turiddu encapsulated the strengths of this performance: no-holds-barred singing and an impassioned orchestra ratcheting up the dramatic tension. The transcendent rapture of the Intermezzo provided a timely respite before the fatal knife fight. 

Javier Arrey (Alfio)
© Liza Voll

Even with distancing, this was a very physical production, the ardor of the orchestra reflected in the movements as well as the singing of the characters. The only time the action absolutely requires close contact – Turiddu’s response to Alfio’s challenge – was handled inventively. Instead of biting Alfio’s ear, Turiddu, standing a few feet away beside him with both facing out, made a violent downward gesture with his hand and his opponent flinched and grabbed his ear. 

I can only imagine what adjustments an opera singer makes to accommodate amplification, but it certainly must involve a leap of faith to rely on someone else for how your voice reaches the audience’s ears. Live, singers are usually their own microphones. They reach our ears unfiltered. So, the remarks I’m about to make have to be considered provisional. Michelle Johnson’s dramatic soprano has a warm, velvety luster which extends throughout her range. It’s a powerful voice evenly produced and easily cuts through the orchestra. “Voi lo sapete”, the  Easter Hymn, and her long scene with Turiddu revealed its expressive variety as well. Amplification tended to muffle the middle of voice and smudge a few high notes.

Michelle Johnson (Santuzza) and Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Mamma Lucia)
© Liza Voll

Unfortunately, it was far from congenial to Adam Diegel’s tenor, a bright voice with ping and a pleasant metallic sheen which amplification soured with a sharp edge when he sang at full volume and in the upper part of his range. A penetrating damp chill rolling in off the water towards the end of the opera might well have contributed to a few rough patches in his farewell to his mother. Nina Yoshida Nelsen, Javier Arrey and Chelsea Basler came through the speakers with greater clarity and fidelity, the impact of their vividly limned characters uncompromised.

BLO has a long track record of successfully adapting alternate sites like the Steriti Rink and Harvard’s Laviete’s Pavilion to accommodate its productions. In this case, though, the venue proved to be intractable. Perhaps with more time to prepare, the acoustics and amplification could have been improved, but the distortion eventually became a distraction and diminished the impact of an otherwise top notch performance.