Written within two years of each other, and both set in dirt-poor villages in southern Italy, the twin peaks of operatic verismo employ similar methods to reach similar aesthetic goals.
The adulterer in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana dies in a duel at the hand of the man he has wronged; the adulterous couple in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci are knifed to death when their play-within-a-play turns real. And since Cav & Pag have always been umbilically joined, it makes a sort of sense to connect them dramatically. I won’t spoil the surprise of director Stephen Barlow’s ingenious linking coup de theatre, but it’s one of the high points in an otherwise patchy evening.
Cavalleria should open with Turiddu’s love song to his mistress Lola being heard offstage as the orchestra plays the prelude, but Barlow gives it to us as a post-coital scene like the one which opens Der Rosenkavalier, with the lovers crawling all over each other. It’s a crude reading, and made worse by the fact that this Turiddu (tenor Peter Auty) doesn’t project the sexual charisma to carry it off, despite Hannah Pedley’s elegantly convincing Lola.
The life of this village unfolds in front of a vast wall of orange crates. Ground down by poverty and held in check by religion, its denizens certainly look their parts, but they seem curiously inert; the characters in the tavern might have been more invigorated if Barlow had not parsimoniously limited the entire gathering to one single bottle of Chianti. More seriously, many of the opera’s musical highlights misfire: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers - perversely got up as a frump - fails to find the intense anguish of Turiddu’s betrayed Santuzza, while the glorious choral hymn goes for nothing. Stephen Gadd’s Canio and Sarah Pring’s Lucia are well sung and nicely characterised, but the whole affair lacks chemistry; the orchestra lacks fizz.
At least Pagliacci brings a splash of colour, with its Calabrian crowd bathed in sunlight as it celebrates the arrival of the travelling theatre troupe. Here Auty plays the cuckolded Canio – a part to which he is far better suited – while Gadd makes a powerful Tonio. The central love-duet between Julia Sporsen’s Nedda and Chang-Han Lim’s Silvio suffers from wooden direction, but when brute reality trumps fantasy the tragedy finally achieves lift-off. This is entirely thanks to Andrew Glover’s resonant Beppe, to Auty’s burning conviction, and to the commedia dell’arte physicality of Sporsen’s provincial vamp.