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Verismo Twins Feature Strong Leading Ladies

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
09/19/2003 -  19, 23, and 27, September, 2, 5, 8, 11 and 17, October, 2003
Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana
Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci

Cavalleria Rusticana: Antonio Nagore (Turiddu), Andrea Gruber (Santuzza), Judith Christin (Mamma Lucia), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Alfio), Katherine Rohrer (Lola), Joy Graham (a woman)
Pagliacci: Anthony Michaels-Moore (Tonio), Jon Frederic West (Canio), Catherine Naglestad (Nedda), James Westman (Silvio), Felipe Rojas (Beppe), Jere Torkelsen (First Farmhand), David Kekuewa (Second Farmhand)
Marco Armiliato (Conductor)
Vera Lucia Calabria (Stage Director)

John-Pierre Ponnelle’s staging of the double bill of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci stirred up controversy when it first appeared at the San Francisco Opera in 1976. Now in it’s fourth appearance, this revival directed by Vera Lucia Calabria retains enough of the original staging to make apparent what all the fuss was about, even if it seems restrained by today’s standards.
While the Pagliacci staging is unerring in its approach from the use of tumblers during the prelude to the brilliant backstage view of the staged commedia at the end, his approach to Cavalleria Rusticana is uneven, though ultimately gripping and moving. In the final analysis, it is the cast, which can make or break the staging depending on the level of conviction, and there the unevenness revealed both the strengths and the weaknesses of the production.
In Ponnelle’s staging of Cavalleria Rusticana, Santuzza is on stage the entire time. During the prelude, figures in black witness a nightmarish event suggesting both Santuzza’s past and her own fears of the future. Andrea Gruber gave a committed, intensely sung performance as Santuzza. Her large, searing soprano dominated the ensembles such as the “Inneggiamo” but she also scaled it back for a heart-felt “Voi lo sapete”. In her scenes with Alfio and Turiddu, Gruber did all she could to generate excitement with her more phlegmatic co-stars.
Antonio Nagore’s Turiddu was a sturdy, decently sung performance and he has an attractive tenor. But his voice is one size too small for the role, particularly when up against Gruber’s powerful instrument. His Turiddu seemed a bit too amiable docile to be the callous seducer and lover and his confrontation with Gruber never built in intensity and power. He redeemed himself somewhat with a moving aria at the end, “Mamma, quell vino e generoso”, but the overall performance lacked the requisite dose of passion.
As his rival and nemesis Alfio, Anthony Michaels-Moore, was even less convincing. The voice is serviceable and he has schooled it well, but its limited palate and dry tone do not fit well with the robust vocal line of Mascagni’s score. With his first appearance, “Il cavallo scalpita”, Michaels-Moore exhibited little of the swagger and dominance of the carter, posing stage center with a poise and elegance completely at conflict with the music. And in his scene with in which Santuzza spurns him on to vengeance, he simply lacked the vocal resources to sound either angry or threatening.
Judith Christin’s Mamma Lucia was a superbly etched character, solidly sung with a powerful chest register and a direct, savvy stage presence that Christen has refined and enhanced with her years of experience.
Just as Gruber’s Santuzza dominated the Cavalleria Rusticana, so too did Catherine Naglestad dominate the Pagliacci, although in a much more subtle way, as befits the opera and character. Naglestad, though singing through a cold, delivered a beautiful sung, heart-rending performance as Nedda. After her stunning debut last season in Handel’s Alcina, Naglestad proved herself capable of great singing in an entirely different style of music. With a rich middle register and an easy, focused top, her “Stridono lassu” was superbly sung, lacking only a true trill. Furthermore, it was a richly drawn portrait of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage yearning for freedom. Naglestad is as much an accomplished actress as she is a singer and her stage presence. She has a natural, compelling presence and easy grace on the stage.
Jon Frederic West returned to the company as Canio after a difficult run in last year’s Otello. He exhibited a powerful tenor with clarity and focus, if somewhat unreliable pitch. Unfortunately, both his singing and his acting were invariably vulgar, both relying more on brute force than on technique and ability. While the appearance of brute force is in keeping with Canio’s character, it is only one facet of it, and the other aspects got short-changed in the process. In the end, his Canio was not much of tragic figure and one had little sense of a shattered life. Vocally, West sounded short breathed much of the time, chopping phrases into bits. Then final lines of the famous “Vesti la giubba” were particularly marred by this lack of sufficient breath.
Equally roughshod was Michaels-Moore’s Tonio. After a well-sung prologue with solid top notes and plenty of textual awareness, Michaels-Moore created of Tonio such a doltish, hulking brute of a man, that on wondered why he had not been locked up some time ago. His inconsistent acting suggested more improvisation than rehearsal. As the only singer to appear in principal roles in both operas, his voice seemed none the worse for the wear, but it is not a plush sound to begin with.
James Westman’s Silvio was sensitively sung and convincingly acted, even if lacking in the kind of romantic gesture to suggest a seducer. Felipe Rojas provided a delightful, fresh voiced Beppe.
The San Francisco Opera Chorus sounded surprisingly anemic early on in Cavalleria Rusticana, but quickly pulled it together in time for the “Regina coeli” and was thereafter its usual superb self in both operas. Marco Armiliato conducted with a great sense of style, giving a highly idiomatic reading for both works.

Kelly Snyder



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