Thursday, October 25, 2007


A belated note on the matinee of Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci I caught a few days ago at City Opera. It's brought on by both the fun I had and as a reaction to the self-congratulatory chest-thumping coming from across the plaza, which is starting to get on my nerves: Fine, we get it, the Met has big, luscious stars, and many of them have nicely proportioned chests, and many of them have shiny, lustrous manes. And then there's the women… But the new productions aren't half as cutting-edge as they think they are (Il Trittico = Zeffirelli in Broadway clothing) and the musical-chair policy of slotting big names as last-minute replacements could backfire severely when some of them start overworking their voices.

The Cav/Pag bill, on the other hand, embodied what City Opera has been doing well for years. (We'll see what the incoming administrator has in mind.) It's not chic to be seen there, it's not super-hyped, but it's pretty damn entertaining. The Cav/Pag singers were mostly fine and the staging was nimble and inventive—more of an achievement than you'd think, considering those pieces are almost part of the national subconscious after having been used and overused in TV and movies, and excerpted on a gazillion tenor recordings. We have to thanks director Stephen Lawless for that. I'd loved his Semele set in the days of JFK's Camelot last year, and Cav/Pag, borrowing from Italian postwar neorealist aesthetics, is another thumbs-up.

Lawless likes conceptual interpretations but he doesn't go as far as some of those kooky Germans (who are always used as strawmen when it comes to decrying going-too-far stagings, but never mind). Lawless works with the music, not against it. He doesn't force his ideas on the opera, but provides a framework that allows the piece to acquire new resonance, visually filling in the blanks without straining. For instance in Cavalleria he alludes to Alfio being in cahoots with the mafia, which adds a nice little frisson to the drama. I did watch with trepidation when Elizabeth Caballero as Nedda (in Pagliacci) climbed on top of her pink trailer in order to sing an aria, then gingerly made her way back down—talk about frisson! Had she missed a step, it would have been a lot more dramatic than Natalie Dessay's trip-and-tumble at opening night of Lucia di Lammermoor.

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