Double dose of la dolce opera

December 11th, 2011

This article is more than 13 years old.

“This is real opera, so Italian that you can almost smell the scorched fields and feel the sun on your body. This is opera charged with a passion that comes through both musically and dramatically.” So says Kasper Holten, the artistic director at the Copenhagen Opera House, about the bilateral production of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s widely admired (but separate and independent) operas from 1890 and 1892 respectively.

The pairing of the two (colloquially referred to by aficionados as the ‘Cav and Pag’ double-bill) was first tried in 1893 and has become a favourite with audiences ever since. Somehow the themes of adultery, hypocrisy, drinking and to-the-death duelling (Cavalleria) dovetail nicely with those of uncontrollable passion, violence, poisoning, and murder (Pagliacci).

Strictly speaking, though, Holten only directs Cavalleria, an iconic, swift-moving one-act affair and one of the world’s classic verismo operas (a non-Romantic style distinguished by realistic, sometimes sordid and violent, depictions of everyday life). As Mascagni’s best known opera, its track record is impressive: up until Mascagni’s death in 1945 the work was produced a staggering 14,000 times in Italy alone. The Royal Danish Theatre caught on in 1927 – but left off in 1986. The national stage had been pushing 410 performances, and now it’s time to dust off the old classic and see how it fares in this millennium.

The director of the Pagliacci half is the Scottish-born Paul Curran, the artistic director of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Curran, who was a professional ballet dancer until a hip injury sent him to SydneyÂ’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, has directed over 20 operas in the past ten years. Including Tosca and La Bohème – both of which Pagliacci is said to resemble musically and dramatically.

As collaborating directors for this double-treat, Holten and Curran have decided to fine-tune their interpretations so that narrative is unconnected while themes ‘resonate’ across the intermission. Like hemispheres, the halves significantly complement each other without actually overlapping.

As already hinted there is little opera buffa in Cav and PagÂ’s ferocious starkness. However, those who like to snicker and chortle may find compensation in two other aspects of these long neglected titles.

The first is of such a magnitude that it could potentially fill the seats of any opera house in the world: namely the Argentinian tenor José Cura whose legendary vocal work will grace the first four performances. (He’ll pass the torch to the American tenor Roy Cornelius Smith whose fame is also considerable.) Intimately acquainted with the material from recording it on DVD, Cura (and after him, Smith) will perform under the conductor Stefano Ranzani. Like Cura’s arias, ticket prices have been permitted to soar on those four nights – the world’s leading interpreter of Verdi, as one critic puts it, knows what he is worth.

And the second is the work of set designer Mia Stensgaard whom critics tend to praise with similar unanimity. Her signature will augment both Cav and Pag and enhance the aesthetic coherence of the evening. Her role is clearly not to be underestimated – and nor is her artistic punch, as Tannhäuser at the Opera demonstrated in 2009. Occasionally paying subtle tribute to a legendary visual artist in her work, Stensgaard also appears to be the kind of artist whose ideas suffer very little obstruction between conception and expression. Working closely with her is costume designer Anja Vang Kragh; up until 2005 her skills were used in the fashion houses of Stella McCartney, Christian Dior and John Galliano.

But as such inducements are after all external to the essential work, let me mention a few choice elements. One is Cavalleria’s much-loved, climactic Easter Hymn – ‘Innegiamo, il Signor non è morto’ – which has compelled some to say that, by and large, even Carmen (a possible model for much of Cavalleria) is outdone by the opera’s powerful tragedy. And then there’s the ‘Vesti la giubba’ aria of Pagliacci, one of the world’s most famous tenor arias, which beautifully exemplifies Leoncavallo’s harmonically expressive vitality and sense of drama.

WhatÂ’s there not to like? This double dose of pure Sicilian passion and vivid drama might be the best relief from all our December chills.

Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci

Store Scene, Operaen, Ekvipagemestervej 10, 1438 Cph K; starts Mon, ends Feb4, dperformances at 20:00 (unless stated) on Mon, Thu, Dec 17, Dec 19, Dec 27, Dec 29, Jan 2, Jan 4, Jan 8 (15:00), Jan 10, Jan 12, Jan 22 (15:00), Jan 24, Jan 30, Feb 2, Feb 4; tickets 95-1,250kr; 180mins including intermission; in Italian with Danish supertitles; www.kglteater.dk


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