Classics Today
Review by: Robert Levine
Fascinating Cav and Pag With Brilliant Jonas Kaufmann

This production, from the Salzburg Easter Festival in March and April of 2015, may feature some faulty singing, but it stands as one of the most gripping accounts of these two operas I’ve encountered. Director/designer Philip Stölzl has cut the playing area into six rectangular frames; occasionally all are open, more frequently only two or three. Ever wonder what characters are doing when they’re not on stage? Do they have a back story? How villainous is Turiddu—we know he fools around with other men’s wives, but what is he like at home? How about Canio? Well, Stölzl allows us to know.

Turiddu lives with Santuzza and they have a son who appears to be about 8 years old. The opera opens with Turiddu, back to the audience, in his small, uninteresting kitchen (in the upper left-hand rectangle), singing his love song to Lola; only during the orchestral interlude that follows do we meet (the silent) Santuzza and child. Turiddu is stuck in one life, longing for another.

On the other hand, the first time we see Canio, sporting a sharp goatee and a high, greased pompadour, looking Mefistofelian in the midst of a brilliantly colored, garish, surreal, Fellini-like world, he’s taking a swig from a bottle and he slaps a child who approaches him. Moreover, he’s peeling an apple with a switchblade—very Chekhovian, that—and of course, we do see it again, frequently. Unlike victim-of-circumstances Turiddu, Canio is a truly nasty, dangerous man—a tattooed smoker in a wife-beater T-shirt.

The set also allows us to see the chorus in Cav—stage front and center—singing the Ineggiamo while Santuzza, in another section, sings her solo. And while Silvio and Nedda are singing their love duet on the lower two-thirds of the stage, we see Tonio telling Canio about them, upper left. Rather than being a distraction, it’s informative. Watching it live must be spectacular, and grand kudos to the recording team who have managed to capture this fractured staging so well, with distance, mid-distance, and close-up shots.

At times the characters freeze in place when something major is about to occur in another “frame”. It’s a grand way to focus. The black-and-white, flat world Stölzl has designed for Cav takes it out of its quaint small village setting and gives it the look of a 1940s urban Italian gangster movie. It’s an interesting decision, even if Mamma Lucia is portrayed as an aging gun moll running a money-laundering operation in a dingy office with two thugs at the door.

Christian Thielemann is a surprise entry into the world of verismo. He wrings every bit of blood and thunder out of each score while playing the two Intermezzi with such sweetness that, rightfully, the audience can take a breath. He doesn’t reveal any hidden treasures in either score, but he certainly does not stoop from his Straussian and Wagnerian heights to conquer.

He is lucky in the casting of Jonas Kaufmann as both Turiddu and Canio. The great tenor is in superb voice and acts up a storm, whether the put-upon, sick-of-his-life Turiddu or the vicious, murdering Canio, who manhandles Beppe and Nedda from the start. His mezza-voce serenade at the start of Cav is luscious and filled with yearning; his “Un tal gioco” is quite terrifying, capped with a huge B-natural on “Venti-tre ore”. In an opera with almost no place to croon (save at the start of “Vesti la giubba”, very effectively), he proves that he can belt out a whole evening. Rather than crying at the aria’s close, he plays with his knife.

Kaufmann is not helped much by the Nedda of Maria Agresta. She is a fine singer but cannot act and seems not to want to either; in addition, she is appallingly costumed and ignores the text. Dimitri Platanias as Tonio does a good job with the Prologue, but he makes little of his dramatic choices. Tansel Akzeybek is a good, pro-active Beppe, but Alessio Arduini plays Silvio like a nerd, even when he goes shirtless.

In Cav, apparently realizing that Liudmyla Monastyrska is a singing rock, director Stölzl has her sitting or leaning against a handy wall throughout the opera. But she sings magnificently, her huge voice invariably right-on and matching Kaufmann note for note in their vicious, pathetic duet, the end of which takes place at their kitchen table. Her duet with Alfio is gorgeous, but someone should buy her a few consonants. With little to do except sneer, surrounded by his gun-toting hit men, the six-foot-six Ambrogio Maestri sings well as Alfio. Lola, in the person of Annalisa Stroppa, sings prettily and is played as a nice girl rather than a tart. The veteran Stefania Toczyska is a nasty, icy Mamma Lucia who is clearly not going to take care of Santuzza.

And so—The Met’s production from 1978 with Domingo, Troyanos, and Milnes at their best under Levine remains the first choice, but this very different look at these two overly-familiar operas, with Kaufmann, Thielemann, and Stölzl’s concept make it worthwhile. Big time.


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