Monday, June 18, 2012


State Opera
June 14

Passionate encounters in a plastic setting.

The merger between the State Opera and the National Theater is still in the preliminary stages, and already the cracks are beginning to show. The new production of Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci that premiered at the State Opera on Thursday night was mostly a confused jumble that elicited a rare outburst of booing during the curtain calls. Whatever else this Cav/Pag may or may not be, its certainly not the way to launch a new era.

To be fair, the production was plagued by problems beyond anyone’s control, starting with director Inga Levant’s husband unexpectedly dying the week before rehearsals were to start. Once they got underway, there were constant problems with singers dropping in and out, and divergent opinions about their quality. At least one performer who was onstage Thursday was a last-minute substitute. Frustrations built to the point that cast members were making grim jokes about giving production manager Don Nixon an office with the window nailed shut, so he wouldn’t jump out.

The double bill opens with a promising conceit. Instead of rustic villages, the operas are set in the Cinecittà film studios in Rome, opened in 1937 by Benito Mussolini, who was a friend of Cavalleria Rusticana composer Pietro Mascagni. Though this makes for some awkward moments – Nedda in Pagliacci, for example, singing of the bright sun and cheerful birdsong from a dark soundstage – it’s a neat fit with the play-within-a-play plot of Pagliacci. And it opens up the Easter theme of Cavalleria Rusticana, with the familiar story of love and betrayal unfolding amidst the filming of a Passion drama.

Cavalleria’s characters are transposed as well: Lola is a starlet, Santuzza is her maid, Turiddu is a technician, Alfio a producer and Lucio a makeup artist. If you haven’t read the program before the performance starts, this is a bit baffling at first. More disconcerting is the reduction of the characters to caricatures. Turiddu is a pot-bellied brute in a wife-beater t-shirt, Lola a vain costumed seductress, Alfio a slick executive. Granted, the opera does not leave a lot of room for character development. But the combination of artificial characters in an artificial setting takes the sting out of the verismo.

And while Cavalleria opens and closes on a Biblical set, most of the action takes place in a dressing room, and a tawdry one at that. There is simply no way that impassioned arias can have an emotional impact in such a plastic setting. Instead, what should be a series of heart-rending laments and fiery exchanges plays out like a cheap, lurid B movie – which may have been the intent. Still, with Santuzza screeching and sobbing on the floor, the effect is less tragic romance and more like watching the early films of American director John Waters, whose trash aesthetic turned low-budget productions like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble into cult classics.

Much of Pagliacci plays out in the dressing room as well, including Canio’s famous Vesti la giubba aria, delivered with agonized conviction by Michal Lehotský. It’s also where Tonio knocks Needa to the ground and tries to rape her – again, more trash than class. That’s the second graphic rape scene in a new opera production within the past week (Don Giovanni brutalized Zerlina in the first). Is there no other way to portray a sexual predator on Czech stages?

The boos that greeted Levant when she came out for the curtain calls were brutal in their own way, though understandable. Her staging was clumsy, to say the least. The chorus looked completely lost the entire night, milling about in a disorganized mob. Arguably the best duet of the evening, between Ivan Kusnjer (Alfio) and Santuzza (Nana Miriani) in Cavalleria, ended with the two of them quickly exiting, so the audience was applauding an empty stage. Those were only the most obvious gaffes in the production, which at one point uses a rubber chicken for comic effect.

The music provided the saving grace of the evening. With not enough time to prepare, conductor Hilary Griffiths focused on Pagliacci, the more straightforward of the two scores. As a result, Cavalleria was still a bit ragged. But Pagliacci was everything that music should be – passionate, nuanced, elegant and framed beautifully for the singers. They ranged from competent to weak, with Kusnjer providing some needed ballast and Lehotský getting a well-deserved hand for a solid turn as Canio.

Much is made in the program of the tyranny supposedly raging outside the film studio – Mussolini and his goons in Cavalleria, and the “Hollywood dictatorship” in Pagliacci, which is set in the present. Perhaps anticipating how little of that would be evident onstage, the program helpfully provides the moral of the stories: “The message is that false beauty, here embodied by the film (Cavalleria Rusticana) and clown (I Pagliacci) costumes, means absolutely nothing when juxtaposed with the reality that surrounds us.”

Reality definitely intruded on this production. Just not in the way anyone planned or expected.

Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci plays again on June 28. For cast and ticket information:

Photograph of Nana Miriani and Michal Lehotský courtesy of the National Theater

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