Christmas has never really been much of an operatic holiday. Ballet has endless Nutcrackers, and Messiahs and Christmas Oratorios fill concert halls and churches in the weeks leading up to 25 December, but the opera world hasn’t come up with anything similar. Sure, there’s Hänsel und Gretel and La bohème, but the former has a nasty undercurrent of child abuse and the latter is Christmassy only if you squint and look at it sideways. While not exactly Christmas, there is at least a holiday theme running through the double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, which might explain why the Norwegian National Opera are doing it as their Christmas production. Unfortunately, neither opera raised much, if any, holiday spirit.

Lise Davidsen (Santuzza) © Erik Berg
Lise Davidsen (Santuzza)
© Erik Berg

This is the first revival of Kasper Holten and Paul Curran’s Cav/Pag, which first premiered in March 2013, but already seems a lot older and dustier. Both operas are set on the steps of the same village church, albeit a few decades apart – Holten’s Cavalleria in a generic 19th-century village and Curran’s Pagliacci around the WW2 liberation of Italy. While the setting offers a sense of continuity, suggesting a connection between the two operas, the production isn’t interested in exploring those connections. Most of all, it’s because not much happens, especially in Holten’s Cavalleria.

The main focus of Cavalleria is the plight of Santuzza and, in Holten’s production, she spends her time crouching down in various degrees of despair, dressed all in red – a not-at-all subtle allusion to Mary Magdalene. The problem is that not much happens around her: the black-clad chorus just stands around, occasionally looking slightly menacing. When other characters enter, it happens only because they have to according to the score, not because the on-stage drama demands it.

Nikoloz Lagvilava (Alfio) and Lise Davidsen (Santuzza) © Erik Berg
Nikoloz Lagvilava (Alfio) and Lise Davidsen (Santuzza)
© Erik Berg

What the production lacked in dramatic interest, it partly made up for with some very good singing. Making her debut as Santuzza, Lise Davidsen did not have an easy time of it. She seemed dramatically uncertain dramatically, especially when not singing. When she was singing, however, she seemed secure and fully in control, soaring effortlessly above the orchestra and chorus in the Easter hymn. I would have liked some more histrionics and scenery chewing in “Voi lo sapete”, but the singing was still full of anguish.

As Turiddu, Henrik Engelsviken sounded strained and had difficulty being heard over the orchestra at anything other than full volume, although he didn’t offer much dynamic variety either. Ingebjørg Kosmo’s Mamma Lucia was sympathetically sung, but suffered from a lack of direction. The same could be said for Vera Talerko’s Lola. Nikoloz Lagvilava as Alfio sang handsomely enough, but seemed at a loss for what to do with himself whilst singing.

Paul Curran’s Pagliacci did not suffer the same directorial absence as Cavalleria. With bustling crowd scenes and even a couple of newlyweds sneaking off, presumably to consummate their marriage, at least something happened on stage. In Curran’s WW2 setting, American flags clutter the bombed-out church steps, but apart from providing a nice backdrop to the opera – a rag-tag troupe of actors finally spreading some joy to a village ravaged by war – it doesn’t say much about the story. While the actors hand out American flags when they first arrive, nothing is made of it later in the production.

Marita Sølberg (Nedda) © Erik Berg
Marita Sølberg (Nedda)
© Erik Berg

As in Cavalleria, the singing in Pagliacci outshone the production. Marita Sølberg’s Nedda sounded radiant throughout her range, with a creamy middle and thrilling top. She sounded especially glorious in her duet with Rodion Pogossov’s Silvio. There was also dramatic intent and intensity that I haven’t seen in her previous performances, with actual anger and indignation in her final confrontation with Canio. Mikhail Grubsky sounded nasal and a tad leathery. In addition, his Italian diction had a certain Russian tinge to it. His acting was variable, but the loud sobs during “Vesti la giubba” were ridiculous. Yngve Søberg’s Tonio was beautifully sung, especially the prologue, but he also seemed at a loss for how to move on stage.

Yngve André Søberg (Tonio) and Mikhail Gubsky (Canio) © Erik Berg
Yngve André Søberg (Tonio) and Mikhail Gubsky (Canio)
© Erik Berg

The orchestra, conducted by Antonino Fogliani, struggled at first. Woodwind intonation was shaky throughout Cavalleria, and the many sudden transitions were not as smooth as they should have been. They seemed to find their bearings, the strings playing with a sweeping, full sound. However, certain groups seemed to be playing in their own tempo, rather than following the conductor. In Pagliacci the orchestra sounded great, but there was occasionally dodgy brass, and the strings struggled with accuracy. The chorus sounded good, despite there being little to no attempt at pronouncing consonants.

Although this revival has little to recommend it dramatically, with captivating singing performances by Lise Davidsen and Marita Sølberg, it is still well worth a visit.