Presto News, 18th March 2016
Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci featuring Jonas Kaufmann

Filmed at last year’s Salzburg Easter Festival, this production of opera’s best-known double-bill was one of the hottest tickets of 2015 – not least because it boasted Jonas Kaufmann in his role-debuts as both the Sicilian lothario Turiddu and the murderous clown Canio. Sadly the box-office fairies didn’t smile on me at the time, but I’m pleased to report that it comes across superbly on film, directed for video by the veteran operatic cinematographer Brian Large.

Christian Thielemann is more associated with German repertoire rather than verismo, and in his hands both scores sound markedly different from the recordings I know (and indeed from the last time I heard them live, all bold primary colours and churning rubato under Antonio Pappano). Rather than heart-on-sleeve slancio, he gives the music plenty of space, as well as elegance and delicacy when required (in his hands, Turiddu’s drinking-song wouldn’t sound out of place in something by Léhar or the Strauss Family, and the opening of Pagliacci is nimble and balletic rather boisterous).

I was moaning just the other day that if I never saw another staging of an opera that relied heavily on video-projections it would be too soon, but I’ll happily cut myself a big slice of humble pie after seeing Philipp Stölzl’s production. His innovative use of split staging and close-ups of characters who are ‘off-stage’ always enhances the main action rather than being a distraction from it - and is especially moving during the intermezzos of each opera, where the camera focuses squarely on the faces of Santuzza and Canio as they agonise about the fatal choice they’ve made to wreak vengeance on their unfaithful lovers.

The big departure from the norm in Cav is the depiction of the central relationship between Turiddu and Santuzza (sung here by imposing Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska), the woman he’s seduced and abandoned for old flame Lola before the opera begins: rather than presenting Santuzza as an obsessive ex-lover who won’t let go, Stölzl has them living together unhappily in a dingy, cramped garret with their young son (the superb, watchful Paul Clementi – the final close-up of his face as he realises that his mother has brought about his father’s murder is heart-breaking). Whilst this strains the libretto in places (why does Santuzza ask Lucia where Turiddu has gone when she’s just seen him leave for church after breakfast, and why does Lucia tell her that he didn’t come ‘home’ the previous night?), it also serves to make both characters more sympathetic than is often the case: Santuzza is fighting to salvage an ongoing (if troubled) relationship rather than doggedly pursuing a former fling, and Turiddu seems less callow when we see his tenderness as a father and loyalty (of sorts) to the woman he ‘ruined’. Annalisa Stroppa’s Lola and Ambrogio Maestri’s mafia boss Alfio are given similar warmth and nuance (though the latter’s entrance, roughing up a villager who’s withheld protection-money, is a genuinely nasty scene). Musically, high points are the great confrontation between Santuzza and Turiddu (two such enormous voices going head-to-head in their tiny attic-room is pressure-cooker intense) and Kaufmann’s shattering, drink-addled farewell to his mother as he leaves for a fight which he knows he’ll lose.

If this Cav is all monochrome and claustrophobic, Pag is a riot of colour and energy. And if Kaufmann’s Turiddu is less callous than usual, his Canio is established as a thug from the off, drinking heavily in his dressing-room and setting about a child (his and Nedda’s?) who runs in to see him in the opening scene, barely holding his temper in check during the players’ sales-pitch to the audience, and attacking a colleague on a lads’ night out. Small wonder that Maria Agresta’s voluptuously sung Nedda seeks comfort in the buff arms of Alessio Arduini’s dapper Silvio, but I challenge anyone’s eyes not to prickle at Kaufmann’s visceral ‘Vesti la giubba’, which sounds wrenched from the guts in the very best way. The final, terrifying close-up of him tearing off his wig-cap and snarling ‘La commedia è finita!’ might haunt my nightmares for weeks to come (though in fairness, I’ve never been good with clowns - especially angry ones covered in blood).


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