Of the many things that link Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, there's a dramatic point that stands out: both are the revenge of the downtrodden. Cavalleria's Santuzza may be sympathetic while Pagliacci's Tonio is loathsome, but both are pushed beyond their limits by the sarcastic abuse they receive and both extract a terrible vengeance – by proxy, inevitably, for they are weak – as they incite the strong man of the piece to murder.

Simon Keenlyside (Tonio), Bryan Hymel (Canio), Carmen Giannattasio (Nedda) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Simon Keenlyside (Tonio), Bryan Hymel (Canio), Carmen Giannattasio (Nedda)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

When it first opened at the Royal Opera two years ago, Damiano Michieletto's production justly drew praise for the artful way in which it wove the two operas together, from the playbills for Pagliacci pasted up in the Easter town square of Cavalleria to the reconciliation between Mamma Lucia and Santuzza in the Pagliacci intermezzo. But with the novelty of those ideas worn off, this first Covent Garden revival makes one concentrate on the myriad details of the production. With the combination of a superb cast excellently guided by revival director Rodula Gaitanou, the drama comes out even stronger.

Brian Hymel (Turiddu), Martina Belli (Lola) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Brian Hymel (Turiddu), Martina Belli (Lola)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Brian Hymel is beginning to make a habit of rescuing the Royal Opera from cancellations. Slated for some while to make his role debut as Turiddu, he added the role Canio at short notice when Fabio Sartori withdrew from the early performances, making this a double role debut. And it was a triumph, both musically and dramatically. In his final aria in Cavalleria Rusticana, with Turiddu all too aware that he will shortly be killed by Alfio, Hymel sang his heart out. His voice was huge, full of warmth and openness, and when he hit those big high notes, he reminded us of why they're called “the money notes”: it's precisely that thrill level that keeps us coming back to opera. Then came the blistering evocation of a man tearing himself apart that is the close of Pagliacci, which he sang and acted with equal conviction.

Elina Garanča (Santuzza) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Elina Garanča (Santuzza)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Being a mezzo taking on the soprano role of Santuzza, Elina Garanča didn't hit high money notes in the same way. But she was heartbreaking, reducing me to tears. Hers is a voice I could listen to all night for the velvet opulence of its timbre and the elegant flow of her phrasing. The role has a lot of notes that fit into the mezzo range, and Garanča's richness of tone in that area made me wonder why mezzos don't sing the role more often.

The rest of the cast didn't disappoint: as Alfio, Mark S. Doss may not have the biggest voice, but more than made up for it with an ebullient personality; Carmen Giannattasio's Nedda made a good switch from comic chatterbox to terrified victim; Simon Keenlyside's voice is on the smooth side for the hunchbacked ruffian that is Tonio, but he put in so much energy and sounded so good that it's hard to complain.

I've not always been Daniel Oren's greatest fan, but I really enjoyed his conducting on this occasion. For sure, tempi were unhurried and there was no great romantic sweep, but maybe that's an advantage: what Oren achieved was to bring out details of both scores. I particularly noticed the way in which Mascagni makes individual instruments grow and swell a phrase out of the middle of a tutti as the rest of the orchestra falls away, and the way in which notes could be marked and directions clearly pointed without overblown romanticism.

Carmen Giannattasio (Nedda), Simon Keenlyside (Tonio) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Carmen Giannattasio (Nedda), Simon Keenlyside (Tonio)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

But it's the level of detail in the staging that makes this production such a winner. Michieletto makes brilliant use of the stage revolve to continually shift our perspective on events, and while he can sometimes get too clever for his own good, such as when he splits the last scene of Pagliacci into two (we are watching what's going on inside Canio's head at the same time as what's happening on the clowns' stage). But the vast majority of his conceits work: the loving detail of life in Mamma Lucia's bakery, the coup de théâtre (which I won't spoil) as we see the embodiment of Santuzza's feeling of guilt during the Easter parade, the lightening of the atmosphere with a children's performance early in Pagliacci. And – credit to Gaitanou – the acting in this revival is consistently excellent, from both Garanča and Keenlyside being pushed over the edge into vengefulness, to Hymel's convincing portrayals of the process of becoming drunk, to the harrowing sight of Elena Zilio as Mamma Lucia, as she kneels over the dead body of her son.

You won't see a more poignant Mamma Lucia than Zilio, and once again, she made a strong effort at stealing the show. But she couldn't do it this time: Hymel and Garanča simply wouldn't fit in the swag bag.

Elena Zilio (Mamma Lucia), Bryan Hymel (Turiddu) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Elena Zilio (Mamma Lucia), Bryan Hymel (Turiddu)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore