The pairing presented at San Carlo was an odd couple indeed: Goyescas by Enrique Granados and Puccini's Suor Angelica. These two one-acters do not share anything but their debuts at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the same period (Goyescas in 1916, Suor Angelica in 1918): neither musical style, nor subject. However, juxtaposing Granados’ boisterous and tragic sensuality with the miserable story of Suor Angelica functioned by contrast, as if to say carnality versus spirituality. As a matter of fact, Granados’ music is as physical and tempting, as the atmosphere in Suor Angelica is ascetic and mystical.

Both stories tell of female characters, though: in the first, Rosario is a noble lady in love with Fernando, and in the second, Angelica is a young woman of aristocratic descent who is confined within a convent by her family after giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Goyescas is a melodrama of love, jealousy and violence, and is the best known of Enrique Granados’ few works. Granados created an opera based on the re-elaboration of his previous suite of piano pieces, based on popular music and dances from 18th-century Spain and inspired by the characters portrayed by Francisco Goya, the so-called majos and majas, young men and women from Madrid known for their nonconformist way of life and elegant outfits. The music is full of lively melodies and rhythms, but with a hovering sense of tragedy. Rosario and her lover Fernando meet torero Paquiro and she rouses her lover’s jealousy. Fernando challenges Paquiro to a duel and is mortally wounded.

In this staging, Rosario was sung by soprano Giuseppina Piunti, whose warm and sensual timbre was fit for the role. Piunti possesses a pleasant voice and provided her role with physical intensity. Tenor Andeka Gorrotxategui was a captivating Fernando, and baritone César San Martin was as Paquiro. Gorrotzxategui accentuated the need for control and the virility of his character; Piunti sang with an elegant line and remarkable confidence. They both were lively and outgoing while San Martin and Giovanna Lanza as Pepa were more self-contained and discreet.

Director Andrea De Rosa, who also designed the sets, gave an intense reproduction of Goya’s portraits, with the help of the beautiful costumes by Alessandro Ciammarughi, the lighting design by Pasquale Mari and the choreographies by Michela Lucenti.

The second half of the bill was Suor Angelica, which calls for a cast of women only, and in the title role needs an interpreter with dramatic skills even more than vocal. The action was set by De Rosa not in a nunnery, as per the libretto, but in an asylum where the nuns were nurses. However, the director left unclear whether Suor Angelica was one of the nurses or one of the patients, as she was not dressed in the veil as a nun should be. After the princess, her merciless aunt, tells her that her child dead, Angelica has an hysterical breakdown, and is immediately treated as a patient by the other nuns.

Maria José Siri ’s portrayal of Angelica was charismatic and uninhibited. Her voice was striking and beautifully phrased with a smooth, melting tone. This contrasted perfectly with a somewhat darker voice from Luciana D’Intino who played the ruthless aunt and complemented Siri’s wonderfully in their intense duets.

All the other singers (the nuns) were engaging and sensitive. The director dug mercilessly into the dark side of the characters, calling for a physical and psychological characterisation. The cast’s expressions and movement on stage highlighted the emotions and impressions created by the score.  

Donato Renzetti was an undisputable protagonist of the evening: his conducting of the San Carlo Orchestra was superb. Under his baton we were met with the riveting sound of an orchestra that supported the singers with energy and enthusiasm, whose main strength was their striking, well-balanced sonority in the orchestral tuttis.