Review: Met Opera’s Dreary January Is Brightened by ‘Cav/Pag’


With a healthy roll of the eyes, call it a mini-festival.

Maybe it’s to give the Metropolitan Opera’s audience some context for its grand new production of Puccini’s “Tosca” (which first debuted in Rome in 1900) that the company is reviving Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Rome, 1890) and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” (Milan, 1892), the standard double bill that opened on Monday. Perhaps the Met carefully planned this deep dive into verismo, that blood-and-guts, heart-on-sleeve, homicidally inclined genre of Italian potboiler that flourished around the turn of the 20th century.

Pagliacci: “Vesti la giubba” Video by Metropolitan Opera

Yeah, right. The juxtaposition of these three operas of congruent period, place and style is in all likelihood a coincidence, spurred — more than any creative consideration — by the sales-conscious programming that has made this one of the most unexciting Met seasons in memory. It is a particularly dull January: Besides a final, schlocky “Merry Widow” on Thursday, there is no break from the same old diet of classic Italian operas until “Parsifal” opens on Feb. 5.

But “Tosca,” directed with extravagant naturalism on a severely raked stage by David McVicar, had pleasures in a thoughtful Sonya Yoncheva and the puppy-dog energy of Vittorio Grigolo. And “Cav/Pag,” as it’s known, was also a thoroughly satisfying night at the opera.

This is also a McVicar show, first unveiled in 2015, and it’s more interventionist than his “Tosca,” and more successful. (Amusingly, the set, dominated by aged, looming brick walls, like an old brewery, resembles that of the unpopular Luc Bondy “Tosca” that Mr. McVicar has just replaced.)


Ekaterina Semenchuk, in the spotlight, as Santuzza in “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Credit Richard Termine for The New York Times

The two operas are staged in the same small-town Italian square, a few decades apart; a program note, and the transition from candles to electric light, suggests that we go from about 1900 (“Cav”) to 1950 (“Pag”).

“Cav,” in this telling, is a grave tale told on a woozily rotating set, filled with people somberly dancing, dressed in black; “Pag” has the antic sparkle that a traveling comedy troupe might indeed have inspired in a country still recovering from war. Nicola Luisotti’s conducting, like the staging, renders the two operas both distinct and of a piece — lugubrious (just a touch too much so) in “Cav”; sunnier in “Pag”; both rich and vigorous throughout.

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