La commedia è finita (almost). Former Prime Minister Theresa May was in the house for its Cav & Pag double bill, an evening of bitter feuds, betrayal and murder. Michael Gove reportedly left before curtain-up. It’s been a fraught few weeks in Floral Street. There have been more cast reshuffles in this Royal Opera revival than Boris Johnson’s cabinet of late: Anita Rachvelishvili out, Ermonela Jaho out, Jonas Kaufmann missing the first two performances and deciding not to sing Canio when he does get on stage. At one point, Kaufmann’s replacement in Pagliacci bowed out of the first two nights as well. 

Dimitri Platanias (Tonio), Roberto Alagna (Canio) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

It was the Alagnas who rode heroically to the rescue. Aleksandra Kurzak took on the roles of Santuzza and Nedda (thereby requiring an acting double because Damiano Michieletto has each character silently appear in the intermezzo of the other’s opera) and Roberto Alagna sang Canio. And as Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, we had SeokJong Baek who had already come off the subs’ bench, to excellent effect, in the recent Samson et Dalila

Elena Zilio (Mamma Lucia) and SeokJong Baek (Turiddu)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The constant in the cast – as she has been since Michieletto’s excellent production first played in 2015 – was Elena Zilio as Mamma Lucia. Despite her tiny frame, she dominates the stage and, at 81, she is still in vibrant voice. Your eye is constantly drawn to her and you realise that Michieletto has Mamma Lucia on stage more than any other character in Cav. Her grief at the murder of her son – which we witness both in the Prologue and at the opera’s end – is heart-rending, but we also witness her “read” every situation, whether she’s kneading dough listening to Santuzza’s revelations or overhearing Alfio’s oath of vengeance. I can’t imagine this production working half as well without her. 

Aleksandra Kurzak (Santuzza)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

This revival contains the best singing I’ve heard in this staging. Kurzak was a perky Nedda, light and agile in the birdsong trills of “Stridono lassù” and very funny as Colombina in the clowns’ play. I wasn’t quite prepared for the impact of her Santuzza, though, where her soprano revealed a powerful depth and weight. Her “Voi lo sapete” revelations were terrific and she rasped a vicious Easter curse too. 

It was a joy to hear Alagna’s golden tenor ring out at Covent Garden again. He has a charming presence and his Canio announced himself with such sunny bonhomie, a natural crowd-pleaser, that it made his descent into tortured clown even more painful. “Vesti la giubba” plumbed the tragic depths and he looked properly harrowed during the troupe’s performance when Michieletto takes us backstage where Canio is taunted by visions of his wife’s infidelity. 

Elena Zilio, Mattia Olivieri (Silvio), Dimitri Platanias (Alfio), Keith Ackerman (baker)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Baek sang Turiddu with plenty of Italianate ping, particularly his catchy brindisi, even if he can’t yet replicate Bryan Hymel’s sense of lovable vulnerability in the role. Dimitri Platanias is an experienced hand as Alfio and Tonio in this production; his bruising baritone suits both characters, his crippled Tonio being particularly malicious. Aigul Akhmetshina, by far the best Carmen here in recent years, sang a seductive Lola, her ripe mezzo sounding as luscious as ever. Mattia Olivieri sang a mellifluous Silvio, the cute baker in Mamma Lucia’s panificio who falls for Nedda when she and Beppe put up Pagliacci posters during Cav, a lovely bit of backstory. The Royal Opera Chorus sang with passion – what an Easter Hymn! – and Sir Antonio Pappano drew sizzling playing from the orchestra to match the scorching heat coming off the stage. 

Elena Zilio (Mamma Lucia), Aleksandra Kurzak (Santuzza) and the Royal Opera Chorus
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

I’ve rehearsed my praise for Michieletto’s production several times. His intertwining of the two operas – Mamma Lucia is reconciled with Santuzza in the Pagliacci intermezzo – is a stroke of genius and Paolo Fantin’s revolving stage literally keeps the action moving, particularly in Cav, which can be rather a static piece. With such a great cast, don’t hesitate to grab a ticket.