The pairing of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci seems to resist any attempt to decouple, which could be a result of clinging to tradition or, more likely, because they really fit well together. The two stories are of similar nature, and they share a musical language rooted in verismo. Conductor Paolo Carignani gave a truthful interpretation of this shared language, leading the Philharmonia Zürich in an emotional, passionate reading of the scores. The chorus in both operas has a very prominent role, and their part is particularly difficult, both vocally and rhythmically. The voices were excellent, showing no strain even in the most arduous passages, but they struggled at times with the rhythm: Carignani had to work hard to keep the chorus at the same tempo as the orchestra. Perhaps this was due to reduced rehearsal time in a reprise; hopefully these snags will be ironed out in the rest of the run.

Elīna Garanča in Cavalleria rusticana
© Toni Suter

The production, by Grishca Asagaroff, made use of the same space for the two operas: a stylised village square, framed by abstract buildings in a bluish-grey hue (stage design by Luigi Perego). The costumes set the story in Cavalleria around the 1920s or 30s of last century, representing all the characters you expect to see in such a setting: priests, nuns, Carabinieri in high uniform, the bourgeois and the farmers, little children running around. It was very stereotyped but lively, with the direction highlighting details of the story often left to imagination. At the beginning we saw Turiddu leaving Lola’s apartment at dawn, after an intimate encounter, and so did Santuzza, devastated by jealousy. We witnessed the beginning of the duel between Turiddu and Alfio, with Turiddu almost running to his death.

For Pagliacci, the same set was used, minus the church, with an added mini-stage where the commedia is represented. I particularly enjoyed Silvio coming and going on his bike, the Piaggio Ape car transporting the acting company, and the many details in the behaviour of the crowd. Several jugglers and acrobats, part of the acting company, enlivened the action.

Elīna Garanča, Marcelo Álvarez and Svetlina Stoyanova in Cavalleria rusticana
© Toni Suter

I may be in the minority in my preference of a soprano as Santuzza, but I must admit that superstar Elīna Garanča went straight through my heart with her luscious, wonderful mezzo. Her flawless legato and solid breath control gave life to all of Santuzza’s strong emotions; her beautiful, round high notes helping her navigate the ventures in the higher register. She seemed very cautious and perhaps at her limits in the prayer “Inneggiamo”, which was nevertheless impressive. Her naturally elegant countenance resulted in a somewhat controlled performance, not completely suited to a character like Santuzza, and the visual impact didn’t help: she kind of looked like a Nordic princess catapulted into early 20th century Sicily (Daenerys Targaryen came to mind). Nevertheless, her spoken curse “A te la mala Pasqua” was cavernous and terrifying.

Ekaterina Bakanova and Marcelo Álvarez in Pagliacci
© Toni Suter

Marcelo Álvarez sang both Turiddu in Cavalleria and Canio in Pagliacci, which is a feat unto itself, both parts (especially Canio) being unforgiving and exposed. Álvarez did show signs of fatigue and didn’t seem particularly at ease, especially on the high notes, but he managed to get through by screwing his courage to the sticking place with a passionate delivery. He was at his best at the end of Pagliacci: “No! Pagliaccio non son” was emotional and beautifully performed – perhaps he saved himself for last.

George Petean sang the parts of Alfio in Cavalleria and Tonio in Pagliacci. His performance was a fine example of verismo singing: he managed to be engaging, ruthless, passionate, utterly emotional and, at the same time, always elegant and with a superb technique. His opening of Pagliacci, in particular, seemed perfect to me.

Marcelo Álvarez and George Petean in Pagliacci
© Toni Suter

Nedda, Canio’s wife, was Ekaterina Bakanova, whose soprano had some sharp edges in the high notes but was successful overall, with a spirited, lively interpretation. Her lover, Silvio, was a pleasant surprise for me: Xiaomeng Zhang’s powerful baritone showed a beautiful legato and good Italianate sound.

Svetlina Stoyanova impressed in the small role of Lola in Cavalleria with a smooth mezzo, while Irène Friedli was an appropriately stern and reserved Mamma Lucia, her mezzo strong in the low register.