A brace of thrilling productions at the Metropolitan Opera this past week—Verdi’s Il Trovatore (running until February 15) and the double bill of Mascani’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which closed February 1—set my pulse racing, and at times even made my hair stand on end. Both productions are the work of Sir David McVicar, who has no less than four operas in the company’s repertory this season (Tosca and Norma round out the quartet).
Even by the melodramatic standards of nineteenth-century opera, Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto for Il Trovatore, based on a play by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez, is fantastical. Consider this: A gypsy is condemned by a count to die at the stake for sorcery. Her daughter Azucena, understandably demented with grief, anger, and rage, kidnaps the noble’s infant son and throws him onto the funeral pyre where her mother burns. Only later does she realize that in her distraction, she has sacrificed her own child to the flames. Crikey. She then raises the stolen child as her own, biding her time to avenge her mother. I can’t spoil it by telling you how she does it, but trust me—it’s a doozy.
Apparently, there were parodies of the opera soon after its 1853 premiere at the Teatro Apollo in Rome. Gilbert and Sullivan later mocked Verdi’s drama in The Pirates of Penzance, and even the Marx Brothers has a go, setting the antics of A Night at the Opera around a production of Il Trovatore.
Originally set in fifteenth century Spain, the McVicar production convincingly transposes the action to the early nineteenth century. The giant, tortured faces in the drop cloth by set designer Charles Edwards pay homage to Goya and his depictions (in the Disasters of War series and other masterworks) of the grisly dramas of Napoleon’s occupation and the subsequent Peninsula War, which were eviscerating Spain at the time. On the stage, macabre crucified figures dot the landscape outside the crumbling Hispano Mauresque citadel, rendered with the elegantly reductive historicism that is the McVicar signature. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s marvelously evocative period costumes enhance the somber Goya-esque drama.
The production features Quinn Kelsey as the Count de Luna, Younghoon Lee as Manrico—the troubadour of the title—and Jennifer Rowley (who stepped into the role with two weeks’ notice to replace a sick colleague) as Leonora, his love interest. All do sterling work.
The role of the manipulative Azucena is a tricky act to pull off, but as played in McVicar’s production (premiered in 2009) by the entirely compelling, wild-eyed Georgian-born mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, she emerges as a believable, elemental force and an eclipsing figure in the action. Rachvelishvili’s performance is etched in memory.
McVicar took more liberties with Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) and Pagliacci(1892), which has been seen in its traditional Zeffirelli staging since 1996. He sets the first near the turn of the twentieth century, when it was written, and the second in the postwar 1940s, the clown and his entourage now traveling players setting up their caravan, with its trunks and racks of tinseled tat, in a war-ruined Calabrese town square.
Rae Smith’s sets and Moritz Junger’s costumes convincingly evoke the atmosphere of Cavalleria’s Sicilian village, with its unforgiving, dark-robed denizens moving around a revolving set—and later, in Pagliacci, of the crumbling Calabrian square, spangled for the night with the tawdry glamour of Pagliacci’s troupe, the townspeople dressed in their Sunday best for an evening at the circus which gives them far, far more that the knockabout opening sketches have promised.
Ekaterina Semenchuk as the scorned and vengeful Santuzza in Cavalleria brought a stormy intensity to her role that was counterpointed by Aleksandra Kurzak’s adulterous Nedda in Pagliacci, bursting with passion and a playfulness laced with foreboding.
The superb Roberto Alagna pulled off the demanding double act of playing the faithless Turiddu in Cavalleria, and Canio, the sad clown consumed with jealousy, in Pagliacci. His delivery of the fabled aria “Vesti la Giubba,” distractedly painting his face in clown makeup whilst Rae Smith’s gaudy, star-spangled blue velvet curtains are lowered to form the backdrop behind him, was nothing short of electrifying.