The standard operatic double-bill known affectionately as Cav & Pag is central to our understanding of verismo, the brand of Italian operatic realism that flourished briefly in the final years of the 19th century. Although seemingly as inseparable a musical pairing as G & S (or G & T, for that matter), the two operas were in fact written a few years apart, and until well into the 20th century were as likely to be coupled with other short operas (for instance, Strauss’ Salome) as with each other.

Dragana Radakovic (Santuzza), Dominica Matthews (Mamma Lucia) and Diego Torre (Turiddu) © Keith Saunders
Dragana Radakovic (Santuzza), Dominica Matthews (Mamma Lucia) and Diego Torre (Turiddu)
© Keith Saunders

Nonetheless, the similarities between them are so striking as to make them ideal operatic bedfellows. Leoncavallo made a particular study of Mascagani’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890), and Pagliacci (1892) was written in deliberate emulation of it. The differences are as interesting as the similarities: the tenor is the adulterous lover in the earlier work, the jealous husband in the later one. In both cases, the guilty parties end up dead, but if our sympathies are tenor-centric, as is not unlikely, we may side end up siding with the victim in the first, and with the murderer in the second.

In Damiano Michieletto’s excellent new production (which debuted at Covent Garden in December 2015), the two works are not just juxtaposed; they’re intertwined. Early in Cavalleria, an excited crowd sees two actors put up posters for their forthcoming show – Pagliacci. Even more ingeniously, during the famous Cavalleria intermezzo, a flirtation between one of these actors and a baker sets up the off-stage infidelity which drives the action in the second opera.

The most inspired interpenetration occurred during Pagliacci's intermezzo, where a pregnant Santuzza is absolved by a priest in confession, and is then reconciled with Mamma Lucia, whose bitter sorrow at the loss of her son is mitigated by the revelation that she was to become a grandmother. The reason this worked was because the gorgeous E major music of the Pagliacci intermezzo was perfectly consonant with this emotional insertion. For some, this postscript to the brutal hopeless of the Cavalleria's conclusion may have been a concession to sentimentality, but if so it was a brief feel-good moment soon to be effaced by the double murder with which Pagliacci ends.

Dominica Matthews (Mamma Lucia) and Dragana Radakovic (Santuzza) © Keith Saunders
Dominica Matthews (Mamma Lucia) and Dragana Radakovic (Santuzza)
© Keith Saunders

These weren’t the only effective directorial interventions in a production where Paolo Fantin’s sets and Carla Teti’s costumes vividly captured an Italy not of the 1890s but of recent memory. Santuzza’s sense of guilt during the Easter hymn found its visual counterpart when the statue of the Virgin came to life and pointed in condemnatory fashion at her (no mater misericordiae here!), effective use being made of spotlights. Particularly intriguing was the end-in-the-beginning stage set-up, when the curtain rose on the bloody corpse of Turiddu, with the chorus frozen in attitudes around it. The fact that the off-stage singer of the Siciliana during this was Turiddu himself gave the scene a nicely hallucinogenic quality. A similar dream-like quality obtained when the play-within-the-play in Pagliacci was doubled in front of the tormented Canio.

As in London, the principal tenor and baritone roles in the two operas were sung by the same singers, here Diego Torre and José Carbó respectively. Torre was in especially fine voice: his Turiddu was warm and lyrical, and he launched into the high notes with undiminished appetite throughout the evening. More was asked of his acting chops as Canio, and he gave a convincing display of internal moral collapse through jealousy, with “Vesti la giubba” an undoubted highpoint. Carbó was strong in the middle and upper registers, if occasionally a little underpowered in his bottom notes. As Alfio, he conveyed the character’s early confidence and subsequent vengeful inexorability, but his portrayal of the limping, predatory Tonio was even more vivid.

José Carbó (Tonio) and Diego Torre (Canio) © Keith Saunders
José Carbó (Tonio) and Diego Torre (Canio)
© Keith Saunders

The crucial role of Santuzza was triumphantly brought off by Dragana Radakovic, who had a lovely liquidity to her voice. As Mamma Lucia Dominica Matthews epitomised old-fashioned integrity, with her love for her son vividly on show. Matthews was good throughout her register, with especially ringing lower notes. Sian Pendry was typically fine as the seductive Lola, bringing the come-hither both physically and vocally. In Pagliacci, Anna Princeva suggested both strength and sauciness as Nedda, with this wide emotional range conveyed through a warm soprano sound. Sam Dundas (Silvio) and John Longmuir (Beppe/Arlecchino) rounded out a fine cast.

As so often in the problematic Joan Sutherland Theatre, the orchestra sounded feeble and underpowered initially, but as the ear adjusted to the space, many good things emerged. The experienced Andrea Licata coordinated the many elements with seeming ease, and resisted sentimental wallowing in the intermezzi. The OA and children’s choruses contributed as much to the success of the evening by their convincing stage business as by the tightness of their ensemble singing.