​In each case, you know the murder is coming. In each case the music is explosive and closes the opera: there is nothing left to say except Canio's simple words: "La commedia è finita." Thus ends opera's most celebrated double bill: Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, a pair of short operas that have been performed together almost exclusively since 1893, known affectionately as "Cav and Pag" to an older generation of operagoers.

Marcello Giordani (Turiddu) and Franck Ferrari (Alfio) in Cavalleria rusticana, © Opéra national de Paris/ Mirco Magliocca
Marcello Giordani (Turiddu) and Franck Ferrari (Alfio) in Cavalleria rusticana,
© Opéra national de Paris/ Mirco Magliocca

It's a double bill which marks the start of the Italian verismo movement, and it's hard to imagine a pair of works by different authors that are so well matched. In Pagliacci's prologue, the composer promises that he will eschew false tears and give us "a slice of life" - and life under the burning sun of Southern Italy, it turns out, is a brutal affair, where jealousy and revenge abound. The settings are different: Pagliacci in a travelling commedia dell'arte troupe in Calabria, Cavalleria Rusticana in the Easter celebrations in a Sicilian village, but the violence is the same.

Giancarlo Del Monaco's productions at Paris's Opéra Bastille are high on artistic appeal, quite distinct visually, but both with a flavour of classic Italian black and white cinema. The village of Cavalleria Rusticana is visually stunning: a tumble of giant white blocks evokes the buildings carved into a hillside, with everyone clad entirely in black - although rich textures distinguish the clothes of the femme fatale Lola. Cavalleria boasts the two top stars of this production: Violetta Urmana as the wronged woman Santuzza and Marcello Giordani as Turiddu, the man who spurns her. Both have big voices (Giordani's somewhat more lyrical than Urmana's), both dominated the stage, and both were believable as their characters: Giordani as the macho bully who turns out to be nowhere near as strong as he portrays himself, and Urmana as the woman whose love for her man is very real but doesn't stop her from effectively signing his death warrant.

Some of Mascagni's best music comes in the overture and orchestral interlude that precedes the final denouement. Conductor Daniel Oren clearly has a good rapport with the Paris Opera orchestra, who were responsive to every detail and produced some great individual sounds: I particularly loved the horn and harp passages, and Mascagni's weaving of Sicilian folksong pastiche into a reasonably modern score. Oren showed great feel for the music, and did a fine job of balancing the orchestra with a set of singers of differing vocal strengths.

Cavalleria Rusticana may have the more accomplished music and (in this production) the bigger stars. Pagliacci has some undistinguished stretches, but has a great beginning and end, and also boasts the outstanding set piece number: Vesti la giubba, in which Canio, who has discovered his wife's infidelity, steels himself to put on his clown's costume, falling apart mentally as he does so. Vladimir Galouzine sang it decently, and sang the closing murder scene better. As Nedda, Paris débutante Brigitte Kele showed good looks and a pleasant voice, but was short of power. Sergey Murzaev gave us a suitably evil Tonio, and was superb in the prologue, sung from the audience and starting about five feet away from our seats, which was quite an experience. The prologue is another great set piece, setting the scene with force and poetry - it's strange to think that it was a last minute addition, bolted on to give the baritone something better to sing.

The staging of Pagliacci was also very cinematic and somewhat monochrome, although not quite as starkly black and white as Cavalleria. I really liked Johannes Leiacker's set, with its truck that turns into the players' stage and old world cinema lighting. Del Monaco's direction was very sure-footed, lending realism to the crowd scenes and following well the plot's blurring of the lines between the play-within-a-play and reality.

This is a double bill that was very much in vogue in my parents' generation, and the cosy appellation "Cav and Pag" gave me the impression that this was some sort of light, cheerful piece. Little could be further from the truth: this is hard hitting stuff. The prologue's promise of "a slice of life" is absolutely fulfilled, and this should appeal to anyone who complains that opera is overwrought melodrama. This Paris production has some imperfections but is an all round strong effort, and has been well worth the trip.

****1