Director's Cut #2

September 27, 1999 - The Metropolitan Opera:  Opening Night
Cavalleria Rusticana - by Pietro Mascagni
Pagliacci - by Ruggiero Leoncavallo

  Although "Cav and Pag" are the first operas I saw (about 1970, in English, at Kansas City’s Lyric Opera), apart from being a warm point of personal reference, they are not works that make it onto my top ten list.  I find passages of interest and beauty in the music and the dramas are deftly plotted.  I especially admire how Cav slowly builds from the minutiae of everyday life to murder.  Nevertheless, in performance, these operas most often leave me untouched.  Accordingly, my interest in the September 27th performance at the Metropolitan Opera was excited by the extravagance and tight-assed cachet of of a Met Opening Night, Plácido Domingo’s triumph in surpassing the great Caruso’s record of opening night outings, and the house debut of handsome and hyped tenor José Cura.

  Without a doubt the night belonged to Mr. Domingo.  In his 18th season opener he gave a dynamic performance as Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.  The occasion infused him with an extra surge of youthful energy immediately evident in eyes that sparkled in response to enthusiastic applause on his discovery in the commedia troupe’s wagon.  Turbulent emotions roil beneath the surface of Domingo’s detailed portrayal of Canio.  He was in fine voice, the colors characteristically dark and shimmering.  Singing with a wonderful forward moving line and a palpable emotional connection to the situation, he was the galvanizing center of an outstanding ensemble performance.

  Veronica Villarroel’s voice continues to puzzle me.  Her distinctive timbre does not rest easily on my ears, but there is an edginess that works quite well for this character.  She is an energetic and committed actress.  Her Nedda was passionately rooted in the moment and played with honesty.  And who wouldn’t be passionate in response to Dwayne Croft’s silkily sung, sinuously sexy Silvio?  He was in top form.   Juan Pons sang a stalwart Tonio.  In his house debut, Charles Castronovo was effective as Beppe.

  Franco Zeffirelli's production of Pagliacci - over thirty years old - holds up well.  His penchant for painstakingly accurate detail combines here with vivid theatricality and the result is a captivating production.  The entrance of the players is a hair over-the-top (flame swallowers, acrobats...) but, under the guidance of stage director Fabrizio Melano, the rest plays nicely indeed. 

  Unfortunately, Mr. Zeffirelli's Cavalleria Rusticana has not aged nearly as well -- the set is shoddy and the stage was lifeless for much of the evening.  I understand that, when it opened, this production of Mascagni’s drama of sexual betrayal teemed with life.  On Opening Night, however, the overall energy was low and scattered.  Dolora Zajick, the Met’s Santuzza of choice, gave a strangely unfocused performance that snapped briefly to life in the scene with Turiddu (José Cura).  (One wondered, actually, if the scenes with Cura were the only ones that were rehearsed.)  When singing well, Zajick has an attractive, clarion power.  She got off to a vocally uneven start - not settling down until after Voi lo sapete.

  José Cura, in his company debut, gave an energetic, theatrically vibrant account of Turiddu.  His handsome, broad shouldered good looks are ideal for the role.  His smile, capable of melting any woman’s (or man’s) heart in a flash, can turn icy with narcissistic indifference.  His carefully produced tenor is almost baritonally dark and small, but is nicely focused and projects well in the Met’s huge auditorium.  For all the hype, this was a solid debut.  As Alfio, the cuckolded teamster, Nikolai Putilin sang loudly, out of tune, and, to my sensibility, without beauty of tone.  I have quite liked him before, so let’s hope it was just a very off night.  Carlo Rizzi just barely held the Met forces together throughout Cav.  Fortunately things were under better control after the intermission.

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