It was an exciting night at the opera. Three leading American singers were making their Dutch National Opera debut and powerhouse mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili her much-anticipated return. All of them delivered on their promise, as the audience, grabbing every opportunity for mid-performance applause, made clear. Disappointment at conductor Sir Mark Elder’s cancellation for health reasons was compensated by the unplanned house debut of Lorenzo Viotti, who is poised to succeed Marc Albrecht as chief conductor at DNO and the Netherlands Philharmonic. The way he shaped the beloved double bill Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci into smouldering dramas promises a golden tenure in Amsterdam. A couple of imperfections aside, the orchestra played for him with agility and a consistently glowing sound. The intermezzos emerged slowly from a place of stillness to peak with incandescent melancholy. And the chorus, children included, matched the musicians in radiance and fire, dispatching a series of choral highlights.

Pagliacci: Roman Burdenko (Tonio) and Ailyn Pérez (Nedda)
© BAUS | Dutch National Opera

While the performers thrilled, director Robert Carsen provided plenty to mull over for those who like challenging productions. Judging from the polite applause and a few boos for the production team, not everyone does. This is not the first staging of Pagliacci to play with the idea of the blurred line between theatre and reality. Its plot, about an actor who murders his wife and her lover during a performance, intrinsically raises questions about actors and their onstage personas, as well as audience complicity. But Carsen goes full metatheatre, stripping the two Southern Italian revenge tragedies of any trace of local colour. He smashes out all realism and remoulds them in the spirit of playwright Luigi Pirandello, who, decades after Mascagni and Leoncavallo composed their Verismo flagships, explored the interaction of actors with their roles and the works they interpret.

Switching the traditional order, Carsen presents Pagliacci first, planting the chorus playing the audience amidst the real audience. Having witnessed the double murder, they reappear onstage in Cavalleria, together with the murderer and his resurrected victims, as a company of actors unable or unwilling to stop the vengeful violence being repeated. Carsen continuously points to the inextricable relationship between life and art, actor and spectator. The Pagliacci set is a dressing room, and the set of the farce within the opera is a replica of that same dressing room. In Cavalleria, the spectators-turned-performers keep changing into costumes identical to their everyday clothes. DNO chorus master Ching-Lien Wu appears as herself, conducting a rehearsal. Since Cavalleria is replete with references to Sicilian village life, the play-within-a-play-within-a-play construct is sometimes a bit of a stretch, notwithstanding creative translation of the subtitles and the odd snippet of left-out dialogue. Santuzza has not been socially disgraced, but fired from the cast, and Mamma Lucia is a stage manager. But the production is wholly convincing, because Carsen is a great singers' director. From the first lines of the prologue, sung with dash and finesse by baritone Roman Burdenko, he gets you involved with the characters, all superbly acted.

Pagliacci: Brandon Jovanovich (Canio)
© BAUS | Dutch National Opera

Brandon Jovanovich’s Canio was a fascinating combination of self-pity and rage. Repeatedly, Jovanovich took his powerful tenor to the brink of demented distortion, without ever losing technical control. His “Vesti la giubba” was horrifying. Soprano Ailyn Pérez made a fantastic role debut as Nedda. Besides great personal charm, she had the ideal voice for the role, fleet and silvery in the ballad and becoming fuller and juicier at dramatic climaxes. Mattia Olivieri as her lover Silvio complemented her perfectly with his polished, dark baritone. Accompanied by Viotti with simmering languor during their clandestine love duet, they created such potent chemistry that it almost became nuclear physics. Burdenko, appropriately repellent as Tonio, and Marco Ciaponi serenading sweetly as Peppe/Arlecchino completed the Pagliacci troupe.

Cavalleria Rusticana: Rihab Chaieb (Lola) and Brian Jagde (Turiddu)
© BAUS | Dutch National Opera

Burdenko returned in Cavalleria as an excellent Alfio, an actor celebrating his birthday by singing “Il cavallo scalpita”, and later on by murdering his wife’s lover Turiddu. Like Jovanovich, tenor Brian Jagde does not have a typically Italianate sound. His Turiddu was Teutonically heroic even in his calling card, the offstage siciliana. But, with an instrument this handsome and a characterisation this vehement, no one’s complaining. This Turiddu was a bit of a louse – even his true love Lola, a vocally seductive Rihab Chaieb, was disgusted by his drunken behaviour. Jagde invested him with explosive bravado, which was punctured during his agonised farewell to Mamma Lucia, a fierce Elena Zilio – one of several goosebump moments of the evening. Rachvelishvili’s astonishing performance was a continuation of the line of great mezzos who have sung the embattled Santuzza. Her huge, lustrous voice not only stunned with its power and beauty, but was also capable of deep pathos, as when she joined the chorus in the Easter hymn, her voice throbbing at half-volume with inner heartbreak.

The bar for the rest of the season has been set very high.