The Met’s revival of David McVicar’s year-old take on the perennial Verismo twins strikes out emotionally in Cavalleria rusticana but scores high in Pagliacci. Working on the same set by Rae Smith, flanked by the forbidding stone walls of the town church, Cavalleria is dark, dark, dark – the very picture of a poor, unhappy Sicilian hill town. The Easter celebration seems more like a ceremony of mourning: we see an almost unlit revolving platform with straight-backed chairs and townsfolk in black clothing, with a couple of thugs who appear to be watching over everyone’s behavior. The women keep their heads down; when the men want to dance clumsily with them, they clearly are not allowed to say no. Into this walks poor Santuzza, already in trouble, and there she remains, mostly on the outside looking in except when she is at the center of the circle, being stared at. The chairs and turntable are moved about for no apparent reason. The gloom overwhelms even this un-merriest of operas. Note: Mr McVicar was scowling in the Met's lobby during intermission, yelling into his cell phone.

Ambrogio Maestri (Alfio) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Ambrogio Maestri (Alfio)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Pagliacci is another story. It startles immediately with a phenomenally tasteless curtain (Cav is curtainless) of blue velvet, with gold cut-out stars – a seedy Vaudeville act is about to take place and Tonio, microphone in hand, announces it. And voilà: the curtain rises on the same set, but now it is lively and a crooked electric pole and its wires announce modernity. People are out for a stroll in everyday, 1940s clothing – laughing, dancing, interacting. At its center is a broken down truck, filled with our players. Canio appears in a powder blue suit – both spiffy and tacky – and Nedda is quite the sexpot. Fights with spaghetti and shaving cream eventually ensue. Forced humor, yes, but the sense of utter zaniness has a purpose: right around the corner from such slapstick lurks danger and mayhem. If only Cav had had more than one face – miserable - it might have given depth to the characters and their tragedies.

Barbara Frittoli (Nedda) and Roberto Alagna (Canio) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Barbara Frittoli (Nedda) and Roberto Alagna (Canio)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Violeta Urmana, in splendid voice after a first few moments of wobbling, did everything right vocally and looked desolate and guilty as Santuzza. One almost felt for her plight, but the fact that all of the townspeople seemed to despise her did not win us over. The interpretation stubbornly remained unclear. Tenor Yonghoon Lee sang and acted with vitality and presented Turiddu as quite the nasty male chauvinist. His voice was secure from his first, off-stage canzone, which sits brutally high and has embarrassed more than one tenor, to his final, moving “Addio.” Baritone Ambrogio Maestri, looming over the rest of the cast like a dark cloud, sang with firmness and menace. Ginger Costa-Jackson vamped it up as Lola and sang prettily.

Roberto Alagna (Canio) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Roberto Alagna (Canio)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Roberto Alagna, whose recent Met appearances have been tentative, was rock solid as Canio. He sang with fierce muscularity and a bit too much volume at first, but turned in a brilliant “Vesti la giubba” and a terrifying, hate-filled final scene. Barbara Frittoli looked stunning as the slatternly Nedda and sounded lovely when she sang softly. Anything above mezzo-forte and above the staff revealed an unappealing beat in the voice. George Gagnidze was a properly nasty Tonio and Alexey Lavrov impressed in his beautiful duet with Nedda. They all acted up a storm.

Fabio Luisi again proved his worth, bringing out each score’s most beautiful, delicate moments, and turning on a dime to reveal their cruel underside. The great Met Orchestra and Chorus reacted to Mr Luisi’s readings with accuracy and sensitivity.

A verdict? Well, if one had only to listen to Cavalleria and could then bask visually and aurally in Pagliacci, this would be a very hearty recommendation. But there are those issues...

***11