Yesterday afternoon San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the third of its seven performances of the opening production of its 96th season, the Cav/Pag double bill of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (rustic chivalry) and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” (clowns). Combining these two one-act operas in a single production is a long-standing tradition; and SFO has paired them fifteen times since its founding, the earliest having been in 1927. Nevertheless, this season’s production is distinctively unique through the efforts of José Cura to stage the two of them in a single set of his own design.
If Cura’s name is familiar, it is because he made his SFO debut in 1996 as a tenor, singing the role of Don José in Georges Bizet’s Carmen. In addition to establishing himself as both director and stage designer, Cura has studied both composition and conducting and has maintained a regular career as a conductor throughout Europe since 1999. Born in Rosario, Argentina, he first conceived of transplanting an Italian verismo narrative to Buenos Aires when, in 2007, he reconceived “Pagliacci” in a production entitled “La Commedia è finita” (the show is over, the final text in the “Pagliacci” libretto). This then evolved into the synthesis of a continuous narrative beginning with “Cav” and proceeding smoothly into “Pag.” This version was staged for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège and first performed in Liège in 2012. The current production is being directed by Jose Maria Condemi.
At the core of the synthesis is a unit set depicting La Boca, the working-class barrio in Buenos Aries that hosted a community of Italian immigrants. The setting is so specific as to identify one of the streets in La Boca, “Caminito” (which basically translates as “little street”). Indeed, the street is so significant to Cura that it takes precedence over the music. Before one hears the first bars of Mascagni’s score, the setting is established with a recording of Carlos Gardel singing the 1926 “Caminito” song, composed by Juan de Dios Filiberto to a text by Gabino Coria Peñaloza. (The text bears the dedication: “Thanks to the woman’s love that I will never have.”) The sense of place is further established by a reproduction of the grotesquely surreal Mural Escenográfico, completed by Omar Gasparini in 1999 and recreated in 2012 after the original wall was demolished.
Having established place, Cura then allowed characters from its “population” to migrate across operatic boundaries, so to speak. Thus, “Cav” begins with Silvio opening up a bar on Caminito. He is putting up posters for the production to be played out during the second act of “Pag;” and he is already hooked on the image of Nedda. Similarly, “Pag” begins with a funeral procession of Turiddu, whose death marks the end of “Cav.” Not all of the transitions are smooth. “Cav” is set on Easter Sunday, while the church is celebrating the Feast for the Assumption of Mary, roughly half a year later. That is a long time for Turiddu’s body to be waiting for burial! On the other hand Santuzza’s pregnancy only becomes noticeable when we see her at the end of “Pagliacci.”
On the whole, however, Cura’s “synthetic” approach is effectively true to the verismo foundations of both operas. Both narratives involve illicit love, jealousy, and violent death. The very idea that the those events in “Pag” can be seen in the context of their unfolding in “Cav” is all the more chilling through the premise that they both unfold in the same place and community.
Yesterday afternoon all of that dramatic intensity was solidly reinforced by the musical account unfolding both on stage and in the orchestra pit. With this production Daniele Callegari is making his SFO debut as conductor, and he is definitely a talent worth watching. “Cav” is particularly challenging because, in Cura’s staging, it involves much of the singing taking place offstage. Callegari was impeccable in his sense of balance, always matching the audibility of vocalists (soloists and chorus) to the instrumental resources. Similarly, he always found just the right pace to match the unfolding of the narrative.
Most importantly, however, he was always there to support the soloists. Both operas impose significant demands on the realization of character through vocal work, and the consistency with which those demands were satisfied could not have been more impressive. In “Cav” mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk delivered an intense account of Santuzzua’s plight, never descending into the trivialities of the “abandoned woman” cliché. The humanity of her exchanges with mezzo Jill Gove’s Mamma Lucia served to amplify the brutality of the two men at the core of the narrative, Turiddu (tenor Roberto Aronica), who abandoned her, and Alfio (baritone Dimitri Platanias), husband of Lola (mezzo Laura Krumm), whom Turridu really loves. “Pag” similarly opposes the frustrations of a woman, Nedda (soprano Lianna Haroutounian), against the brutality of men, this time both her husband Canio (tenor Marco Berti) and stage manager Tonio (Platanias again). She hopes for a more loving relationship with Silvio (baritone David Pershall); but neither of them survive to the end of the opera.
FitzGibbon and Peláez dancing in front of the reproduction of Gasparini’s mural (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
If both operas are “about” sensitive women trying to get beyond the brutality of men, the idealized relationship they seek was distilled into choreography by Lawrence Pech during the musical interlude in “Cav.” His pas de deux for Alexandra FitzGibbon and Jekyns Peláez found just the right way to balance the sensitivity of love against the raw qualities of the erotic. Pech’s staging recalled many of the sinuous moves for which Roland Petit (who created a ballet version of Carmen) was so well known during the middle of the twentieth century. There is nothing more satisfying that seeing ballet in an opera production that rises above the superfluous, and Pech definitely found the right lever to elevate his work.