Sir David McVicar is becoming the Met’s 21st-century Franco Zeffirelli. Though he is neither as lavish in his presentation nor as poverty stricken in his ideas as the elder Italian statesman, his productions are meant to please crowds. His Donizetti Queens trilogy are handsome, period productions that look and feel vaguely like one another, but that’s fine. His Norma is properly Druid-looking and the characters interact well. His recent Tosca works very well – a somewhat impressionistic take on Zeffirelli’s beloved production. The Trovatore is ugly and turns to Goya for inspiration, but it’s a story that takes place in the dark anyway.

Roberto Alagna (Canio) in <i>Pagliacci</i> © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Roberto Alagna (Canio) in Pagliacci
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
 

His double bill Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, from 2015, was problematic from the start, or at least Cav certainly was and remains so. Working on a dreary, almost all-black set by Rae Smith, it’s pretty morbid, which is acceptable – it’s never been accused of being fun – but the entire look is opposed to an Easter celebration in a religious village. Set on a turntable which revolves far more often than it needs to, we see frequent rearrangements of stiff-backed chairs which appear gloomily against the barely-lit walls of the church. There are no stairs leading to the church; a two-statue procession that takes place at night. In other words, almost no action.

Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza) in <i>Cavalleria rusticana</i> © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza) in Cavalleria rusticana
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The townsfolk, in everyday poor-village clothing, are lackluster and the Easter procession itself is a dark affair. The men are clownish, dancing thugs and the women are shadowy, mundane characters who sew and do laundry and seem forced to dance with the men when they are asked. I believe the production is supposed to say something about the roles of men and women in such a closed society, but that’s a stretch: it’s just a miserable Easter morning (or night) in a Sicilian hill town. Santuzza is always on stage, on the periphery – the eternal outsider. Even at its best, Cav is an opera that takes a quarter of an hour to get dramatically started; here one keeps waiting in the dark.

George Gagnidze (Alfio) and Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza) in <i>Cavalleria rusticana</i> © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
George Gagnidze (Alfio) and Ekaterina Semenchuk (Santuzza) in Cavalleria rusticana
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Pagliacci, on the same set, is, correctly, another world: it is updated to the 1940s and is lively and exciting. Cav was devoid of a curtain; Pag’s is wonderfully circus-like and vulgar and features gold cut-out stars on blue velvet, the very image of a seedy, low-budget, traveling show. The square is filled with lights and people interacting. A truck enters and breaks down – it is our troupe of players – and they are welcomed by the somewhat familiar townspeople. The play-within-a-play is rollicking slapstick and Nedda/Columbina comes close to a striptease amidst all the shaving cream and pratfalls. Once the horrendous disaster begins to unfold, it happens quickly and fearfully. The audience gasps.

Roberto Alagna (Canio), George Gagnidze (Tonio) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda) in <i>Pagliacci</i> © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Roberto Alagna (Canio), George Gagnidze (Tonio) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda) in Pagliacci
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Of the three seasons in which this production has appeared, this one presents the strongest cast. Ekaterina Semenchuk is a powerhouse mezzo with a rock-solid top and no fear of chest voice. Her Santuzza, even within the framework of this dead-in-the-water production, was effective, and not only vocally. Banished to the side of the stage, one still sensed her suffering. A fine performance, which received a rousing ovation. Jane Bunnell was an icy Mamma Lucia and Rihab Chaieb impressed as Lola, standing out from the crowd as the only person having a good time.

In Pagliacci, Aleksandra Kurzak’s Nedda was a fierce, doomed character and she sang and acted up a storm. Young Andrew Bidlack’s as Beppe and Alessio Arduini as Silvio exhibited fine tenor and baritone instruments respectively, though the latter was hampered by poor pit-stage coordination in his duet with Nedda.

Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda) and Roberto Alagna (Canio) in <i>Pagliacci</i> © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Aleksandra Kurzak (Nedda) and Roberto Alagna (Canio) in Pagliacci
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Roberto Alagna sang both Turiddu and Canio, in finer voice than he has been in a couple of years. It was effortless and ringing, all the way up to high B natural, and his facility on stage is what many tenors can only hope for. His (underdirected) Turiddu was the usual cad, although working on such a small, circular stage area impeded him, but his leaps on and off tables were impressive. The same leaps appeared in Pagliacci, where he was far more active in general. “Vesti la giubba” was not milked, it was handsomely, bitterly sung. Also in both operas (as Alfio and Tonio) was George Gagnidze, far more impressive than in the past, singing with a shiny baritone which, maybe, could have used more weight but had everything else.

Despite Nicola Luisotti’s strangely quick tempi, the drama came through Cav as best it could and vividly for Pagliacci. The Met Orchestra and Chorus are now so ideal that they treat these warhorses as if they were Parsifal. Poor, meaningless, murky Cav, but a fine revival.