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Opera Review Classic Italian fare

LYNNE WALSH feasts on two great offerings at the Royal Opera House

Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci
Royal Opera House, London

THERE’S a clever conceit in this staging of opera’s most famous double bill, with characters from each of the two pieces appearing in superbly mimed vignettes in both. This enhances the sense of authenticity of works which are, on one level, pure Italian soap opera, seething with jealousies, violence, damnation and death.

The libretto for Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, based on a newspaper crime report, perhaps has resonance for a London audience — the city saw four young lives taken over the new year holiday in fatal stabbings.

The Sicilian peasants in Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana may be struggling in the grip of poverty with little hope of escape — just as the poor actors in Pagliacci are trapped in a nomadic round of performances in grimy village halls — but there is no despair.

They summon energy for the Paschal celebration and the Easter hymn is exquisite as it builds and soars. Santuzza (Anna Pirozzi) joins them in the melody, her devotion as pure as theirs, but she feels unable to join them in the religious procession because, abandoned by her lover Turiddu (Bryan Hymel), she is “fallen.”

The finger-pointing at her, in a devastating scene, leaves her without comfort. When the Madonna names you whore, there can surely be no future.

Director Damiano Michieletto has the lovers in both operas wrestling with one another as well as with their consciences. The threatened violence is believable, as in the confrontation between the abandoned Santuzza and Turiddu in Cavalleria.

Her unfaithful lover’s cruelty finally makes her spit out: “I curse your Easter!”  — this is not an exchange you’d come away humming but it shows  her as a betrayed woman, passive no longer.

If only this heroine had been able to advise poor Nedda (Carmen Giannattasio), the unfaithful wife of actor Canio (Fabio Sartori) who plays Pagliacci. She has made a silent appearance in the village already in Cavalleria, where she's wooed by the handsome baker Silvio (Samuel Dale Johnson).

The young Australian baritone is wonderful and, when he begs Nedda to run away with him, it seems likely that half the packed audience would have followed him like a shot.

Another plus is the set — some audience members swore they could smell bread — that's so excellent Italian restaurants near the Opera House must be doing great trade during this run.

Runs until January 13, box office: roh.org.uk

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