Madison Opera Goes Old School

Some great singing and a traditional approach revive “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci”


It has been more than 30 years since Madison Opera staged that once-ubiquitous double bill of one-act operas, “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” That’s nothing—I’ve been attending and listening to opera for a little over half a century, and I never managed to see them until Friday night in Overture Hall.

So first things, first: A thank you to Madison Opera general director Kathryn Smith for reviving these one-hit wonders of Mascagni and Leoncavallo, respectively. And more thanks are due to director Kristine McIntyre and scenic designer Constantine Kritikos for adopting a solidly traditional approach that still breathed some new life in these works.

All that was needed was to add some great singing, and there was a great deal of that. But before we start tossing out more bouquets, some general thoughts on the experience of encountering these operas at last.

Each of these operas contributed their fair share of iconic moments and music, to the point where it was easy to parody Italian opera in general with an exaggerated “Ridi, pagliaccio” (“Laugh, clown”) an aria and role that helped launch Caruso, particularly his landmark early recording career, and certainly promoted “Pag”. (I trust my readers will indulge me from this point in using the “Cav/Pag” shorthand references to the works).

To resume, I don’t think I even listened to all 74 minutes of “Cav,” and never bought a recording. The “Intermezzo” is often heard out of context (at the end of “Godfather III” to name one example), and I did have a Jussi Bjorling recording that included Turiddu’s famous farewell to his Mamma, just before he is killed (if you think that’s a spoiler alert, you don’t know how predictable opera can be!). Speaking of Bjorling (a great Swedish tenor who died far too young), I did have the old Seraphim LPs of his complete “Pag.” But even though I must have seen at least two dozen operas at the Metropolitan Opera between 1968 and 1975, it was never this famous pair. By the time I was in Los Angeles for 20 years beginning in 1981, the works had fallen somewhat out of favor. (Interesting footnote: John DeMain conducted a fascinating 1999 pairing of “Pag” with, of all things, Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”—and got a great review in the Los Angeles Times).

Enough digressing… “Cav” (the title translates as “Rustic Chivalry,” the chorus is pictured above, courtesy of Madison Opera) is a tale of two loves betrayed, and vengeance played out on Easter Sunday. The set design of Kritikos had a church stage left, with dramatically angled, two-story residences on the right, plenty of room in front and an open between them in the center. To these untrained eyes, it had the feel and mostly the look of 1890 small Italian village, which is when the work was written.

Tenor Scott Piper, the double betrayer, began unimpressively, but then again, even the Madison Symphony, so glorious in its two season-opening programs, was a little ragged in its intonation initially, and lacked its characteristic sheen. The vocal stars were soprano Michelle Johnson as Santuzza (in her local debut) and as Alfio, Michael Mayes—last seen here in Dead Man Walking. As memorable as that was in 2014, it was great to see and hear him in some traditional fare; needless to say he had little trouble in conjuring menace when he learns of his wife’s unfaithfulness.

Perhaps the most surprising thing to yours truly is that “Cav” is, despite its brevity, a little languid and almost colorless at times. By the time of the famous “Intermezzo” however, the MSO was in full bloom, and the final twenty minutes of the opera were thoroughly compelling.

“Pag” was everything “Cav” was not, from the first minute to the final tragedy. Now Kritikos’ set was largely intact on the right, with the church replaced by the makeshift stage for the commedia troupe, and only slightly updated by an electrical pole and wires as needed for makeshift 1920s-ish lighting; in short, it worked (the piece dates from 1892).

Now Mayes was Tonio, the would-be lover of Nedda, who is coupled with Canio, the troupe leader, but is in fact having an affair with Silvio. Nedda was sung by Talise Trevigne in her Madison Opera debut—but I could hardly be surprised by her vocalism or stage presence, as she had been Bess when DeMain conducted Porgy and Bess at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2017. We can only hope she is back here again, and soon.

Piper was Canio, and not only was he in fine voice throughout, but carefully navigated the easy-to-overdo “Ridi, pagliaccio” moment. Mayes was even more amazing as the ugly clown with a dark side. Benjamin Taylor was Silvio, and his debut was exceptionally impressive, displaying a light-colored voice that did not lack for power, and a real chemistry with Trevigne in their extended duet.

The conductor was Joseph Mechavich, returning after a 2013 Don Giovanni and 2017’s “Opera in the Park.” (DeMain had recently returned from a Candide triumph in Barcelona, but had already missed nearly all the rehearsal time). Mechavich had no trouble in getting the MSO back on all cylinders in “Pag,” the woodwinds particularly seeming to revel in the score which, unlike the opener, abounds in color. And a collective “bravi” for the Madison Opera Chorus, trained as always by Anthony Cao, never sounding better; once again a nod to McIntyre for giving us a sense of natural action that never became too busy for its own sake.

In all, a very satisfying opening for Madison Opera’s 58th season, and we look forward to the February offerings of A Little Night Music.

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