120 years after the Metropolitan Opera in New York paired Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in a single performance, the tradition of staging these representative works of verismo opera in a double bill continued this weekend with a production under the direction of Lo Kingman, Hong Kong’s home-grown doyen of opera.

Towards the end of the 19th century, French and German composers had supplanted such Italian bel canto masters as Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti as dominant forces in the world of opera. For Italian composers, verismo opera, with its focus often on emotionally charged themes involving common folk, could well have been a conveniently populist shortcut to restoring their former glory.

Although not quite one-hit wonders, Mascagni and Leoncavallo are at best talented exponents of a limited genre with only one work each which remains frequently performed today. The popularity of Cav & Pag, as the double bill has come to be known, owes as much to the works’ artistic merit as to their subject matter – infidelity, jealousy and revenge, topics which continue to fascinate the popular imagination.

It’s Easter. Cavalleria Rusticana opens with a village girl, Santuzza, asking her fiancé Turiddu’s whereabouts of his mother Lucia at her wine shop. It turns out that Turiddu is in love with Lola, wife of Alfio, the village teamster. Turiddu pushes Santuzza to the ground when she confronts him about his infidelity. In her rage, Santuzza tips off Alfio about his wife cheating on him. Vowing revenge, Alfio kills Turiddu in a duel.

For a work consumed by boiling passion, poisonous jealousy and ruthless retribution, the pace of the production on Saturday was slow. John Daniecki as Turiddu was spine-chillingly vicious, with a poignantly narrow but penetratingly clear voice to match. Baritone Grant Youngblood was a solidly vengeful Alfio. Janara Kellerman’s portrayal of the tragic victim Santuzza was one-dimensional and overwrought, and her voice was rough around the edges, palpably fractured in the transition between high and low notes. Although Melody Sze sang well, she was too genteel to be brazen as the cheating Lola.

Pagliacci is a play within a play in which fantasy blends into reality. The commedia troupe that arrives in town prepares to put on a melodrama about two lovers conspiring to poison the woman’s husband. Canio, head of the troupe in the role as target of the lovers’ plot, happens in real life also to be the cuckolded husband of the woman playing one of the lovers, Nedda. Tonio, the fool, is a secret admirer of Nedda, but she spurns his advances. With love turning into vengeance, he tells Canio about Nedda’s tryst with Silvio, one of the villagers. Confusing his role in the play with real life, Canio forces Nedda to reveal the identity of her lover during the performance. He stabs her to death on stage when she refuses, and Silvio too when he reveals himself.

The entire cast on Saturday put in a credible performance, but Jeffrey Hartman as Canio stood out. An angry bull to the red rag of Nedda’s adultery with Silvio, he could hardly contain his violent hurt, at one point throwing a plate into the orchestra pit. His full-bodied and expansive voice was expressive and flexible, exposing wild pangs of jealousy. Brian Montgomery’s Tonio was a strong performance, but could have been a little funnier.

If it is true, as Director Lo Kingman says in a programme note, that “all artistic elements in an opera production must grow from the music”, the orchestral launching pad of the Hong Kong Virtuosi was underpowered. Bright sparks in individual playing, such as the harp in the opening serenade of Cavalleria, could not make up for the raw and immature tone of the orchestra. The real surprise, though, was the Opera Society of Hong Kong Chorus, providing mellow relief to the fiery emotions.

Lo Kingman took a safe and well-trodden path in his production of the Cav & Pag verismo double-bill. With such well-crafted material, he could have taken more risks. In any case, ardent acting and high quality singing made for a decent evening of entertainment to ring in the New Year.