Two classic operas traditionally presented together, Mascagni’s one act Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892), are given a fresh and enthralling rendition by Italian director Damiano Michieletto for Opera Australia. Presented as a double bill at the Melbourne Arts Centre in co-production with the Royal Opera House, Göteborg Opera Sweden and La Monnaie Brussels, following a near sold-out run at the Sydney Opera House, these two popular Operas take-on themes of love, jealousy, betrayal, morality, piety, and the duality of our private versus our public lives in a way that draws audiences in and leaves them wanting more.
The production opens with a full cast/town frozen around a murdered Turiddu (Diago Torre), setting the tone for drama and anguish in what looks like a scene out of a contemporary music video clip within the first few seconds of curtains-up. More importantly this stylistic decision to place the production in a contemporary setting, and to begin with a snapshot of the final scene sets the tone for what will be an original and captivating retelling of the two classic tales.
Visually this performance is a marvel. Carla Teti’s take on period and place is perfect and the enticing costume design perfectly complements Paolo Fantin’s incredibly realistic and gritty set design, while Alessandro Carletti’s provides an intense and unapologetic lighting design. The stage rotates, alternating between inside and outside spaces in Cavalleria and a theatre and backstage in Pagliacci, symbolising the drama that occurs in private behind closed doors, while the sides of buildings and corridors symbolised moral grey areas. The highly cinematic set and costume design draw the audience into the story, and combined with innovative staging techniques breathes some (much needed) fresh air into the production.
However the triumph of the production comes in the way that Michieletto manages to so charmingly and effortlessly weave the two separate stories together. Through props, character development and clever use of the two operas intermezzo’s Michieletto blends the two stories into one. This allows the audience to get to know the village and characters and become increasingly invested and enthralled in all the drama that goes down in this small Italian town, which feels uncannily similar to one that you would easily pass through when traveling in Southern Italy. It acts as a snapshot in time of a small town, highlighting just how much sex, lies, betrayal and drama can occur in less than a month (set between Easter and the Feast of Assumption) which leaves you feeling that surely there is more to come and that each and every other town member also has more skeletons in their closet.
Bringing the drama to life was a highly talented cast, with Anna Priceva pulling off a sultry and rebellious soprano as Nedda, a heartbreaking and gripping portrayal of Santuzza by Dragana Radakovic, a powerful performance by Dominica Mathews as Mamma Lucia and Sian Pendry bringing a seductive and meddling quality to Lola. John Longmuir was a perfect Beppe, Samual Dundas a charming and lovable Silvio, José Carbó’s a gripping and often unsettling Tonio and confident Alfio, and a superb Diego Torre as Turiddu and Canio pulling off Vesti La Giubba with true mastery. The vocal performance from the cast was made even more powerful by their excellent acting, as they managed to embody the full range of their characters turmoil and passion.
Orchestra Victoria do an excellent job under conductor Andrea Licata, adding even more tension while capturing the beauty, and often pain, of the more intimate scenes. Overall a wonderful performance and an excellent programming choice from Opera Australia.