Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci have been locked together in a fatal embrace since 1893 when they were first paired as a double bill. Dalliances with other partners followed and even the occasional solo outing, but the double act became so familiar, it even has its own “Cav’n’Pag” abbreviation. Franco Zeffirelli’s was the last new production at Royal Opera in 1959, so a new staging was long overdue. Damiano Michieletto doesn’t just set both operas in the same southern Italian village in the 1980s, he allows characters from one opera to drift into the other… with inspired results.

Carmen Giannattasio (Nedda) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Carmen Giannattasio (Nedda)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Thus in Cavalleria rusticana we saw Beppe pasting Pagliacci show posters on the walls of Mamma Lucia’s bakery, while in the famous Intermezzo, Nedda has her first amorous encounter with Silvio, here a lowly baker. Honours are reversed in Pagliacci’s Intermezzo where the grieving Mamma Lucia is reconciled with Santuzza, who is bearing Turiddu’s child. Both intermezzos – backstory and postscript – are little masterstrokes which subtly enhance our understanding of the characters from the opposite opera.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Santuzza) and Dimitri Platanias (Alfio) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Santuzza) and Dimitri Platanias (Alfio)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Paolo Fantin employs different sets for each opera, but both use a revolve to give us different angles on the action, from the kitchen to the shop front, from the dressing room to the village hall stage, from private agony to public displays of grief. Michieletto mixes humour and melodrama. Tinsel-haloed children staging a Passion play jostle for space on Pagliacci’s cramped stage, while the Madonna in the Easter procession jabs an accusatory finger at Santuzza. Further dramatic devices include a freeze frame of the opera’s final tableau to accompany the opening siciliana of Cav, and a sequence in Pagliacci where doubles continue the “stage action” in the village hall while Taddeo (Tonio) and Columbina (Nedda) taunt Canio in his dressing room, the clowns’ leading man losing his mind and hitting the bottle. The drama is compelling, the stagecraft convincing.

<i>Cavalleria rusticana</i> © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Cavalleria rusticana
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

There is strength in the Royal Opera’s casting, but flaws too. Aleksandrs Antonenko’s burly tenor is bronzed and trumpet-toned, but is constricted at the top and strayed sharp too often for comfort in Cav. Pag found him in more secure form, where he delivered an intense “Vesti la giubba” as Canio grimly prepares to go “on with the show”. Of his leading ladies, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s conflicted Santuzza was convincingly acted, her dark soprano adding real grit to the role. Vocally, however, her vibrato now veers dangerously wide and she shies away from lingering on the glamorous “money notes” because they’re no longer secure. There’s a steely glint in Carmen Giannattasio’s upper register – and considerable power – which made her Nedda especially feisty, but she was also capable of goofing around nicely in her “Columbina” stage persona… and who else could scene-steal so outrageously in Cav?

Dionysios Sourbis (Silvio) and Carmen Giannattasio (Nedda) in <i>Cav</i> © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Dionysios Sourbis (Silvio) and Carmen Giannattasio (Nedda) in Cav
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Dimitri Platanias did sturdy double duty as the cuckolded husband Alfio and the deformed clown Tonio. He is not always the most convincing actor, but his baritone is gloriously rich and smooth throughout its range and his Pagliacci Prologue purred along. Great casting brought us a mellifluous Beppe from Benjamin Hulett and a glamorous Lola from Martina Belli. Dionysios Sourbis’ prominent vibrato prevented his Silvio from charming as he should. Without slighting the lead singers though, the highlight was Elena Zilio’s tremendous Mamma Lucia – every inch of her tiny frame the indomitable Italian matriarch, and in equally commanding voice. She overhears Santuzza spill the beans to Alfio about Turiddu’s affair with Lola and she knows her son is already a dead man… and it showed in a grief-filled opening to the Intermezzo, before Silvio and Nedda took over.

Elena Zilio (Mamma Lucia) and Aleksanders Antonenko (Turiddu) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Elena Zilio (Mamma Lucia) and Aleksanders Antonenko (Turiddu)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Sir Antonio Pappano, steeped in the culture of southern Italy, led a passionate account of both scores, his orchestra on scorching form. Sadly, the ROH Chorus, especially in Cav, lurched behind the beat. There is a lot of off-stage choral action, no doubt cued via monitor, and pit—chorus co-ordination was off-kilter at several points. One would anticipate this being tightened up during the run, but interventionist action is needed to re the blocking of chorus members, which often looked as if the director had forgotten about them entirely – the only blip in an otherwise gripping staging. Wrestle for a ticket.