Nothing says “Happy Easter” like a bit of alcohol-fuelled murder on the church steps, right? With their new double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, the Norwegian National Opera certainly seems to think so!

© Erik Berg
© Erik Berg

The two productions were done on practically the same sets, albeit with a few differences, which did create a rather wonderful sense of continuity from the first opera to the other. Kasper Holten’s ever paschally inclined Cavalleria was the more traditional of the two, set around the time of the composition, although exactly when is a little tricky to discern. Santuzza is dressed in all red, a clear parallel to Mary Magdalene, and is depicted as an outcast, clearly despised by the village. This was further driven home by both excellent chorus direction, but also some stellar singing and acting from Santuzza herself, Tuija Knihtilä. Her huge voice rang through the auditorium, being heard over the orchestra at any volume.

Her Turiddu, Henrik Engelsviken, was rather more disappointing. He sounded strained in the beginning and also struggled with intonation, although this did get better through the show. In addition, his acting was quite wooden, but in the end, his portrayal was effective enough. More impressive was the Alfio of Yngve Søberg, very well sung throughout, especially at the opening, and although he may not be the greatest actor, he was still committed to the role and gave a strong performance. Tone Kruse’s Mamma Lucia and Ingeborg Gillebo’s Lola were both competently sung, and Mamma Lucia was very touching, especially during the first half of the opera.

The second opera of the night’s double bill, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci had a much less traditional production. Paul Curran used the same church steps as in Holten’s Cavalleria, but several years have passed, and several bombs seem to have been dropped, as the production was set during the Second World War. Canio and his troupe were made out to be Americans coming to the aid of the villagers by putting on a commedia play, and although it wasn’t the most radical of updates, it worked very well.

Again, the chorus was very good, both in terms of singing and acting. On the whole, Pagliacci was sung better than Cavalleria, with no real weak links in the cast. Acting was by and large very good indeed, especially that of Espen Langvik’s Silvio and Ole Jørgen Kristiansen’s Tonio. Especially well-sung was the Canio of Roy Cornelius Smith. His voice was beautiful and definitely on the large side, and his portrayal of the betrayed husband, both in and out of his commedia costume, was utterly convincing. He was especially good in the finale. As Nedda, Marita Sølberg once again convinced, especially vocally. Her smoky soprano was especially well suited to Nedda’s aria, but she was equally wonderful portraying Colombina, showing a both a charming stage presence and a beautiful voice.

Another vocal highlight of the show was the Tonio of Ole Jørgen Kristiansen. His prologue was impeccably sung, as well as his scene with Nedda. That Kristiansen also is a very good actor certainly helped as well. Espen Langvik’s Silvio and Marius Roth Christensen’s Beppe were both well sung, especially Silvio. Langvik was especially good in his duet with Sølberg’s Nedda. Christensen’s Beppe started out sounding underpowered, but by the time he sang Arlecchino’s serenade, he sounded lovely.

The Norwegian National Opera’s double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci is a definite success. Both have strong productions which are helped along tremendously by mostly very strong casts, largely stemming from the house’s own soloist ensemble – not to mention the generally excellent chorus.

****1