MASCAGNI Cavalleria Rusticana LEONCAVALLO Pagliacci
Plácido Domingo (Turiddu), Tatiana Troyanos (Santuzza), Jean Kraft (Lucia),
Vern Shinall (Alfio), Isola Jones (Lola)
Sherrill Milnes (Tonio), Plácido Domingo (Canio), Arthur Apy, Domenico Simeone (Villagers), Teresa Stratas (Nedda), James Atherton (Beppe), Allan Monk (Silvio)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus / James Levine, Franco Zeffirelli (director), Fabrizio Melano (revival director), Kirk Browning (film director).
Sound: LPCM Stereo / DTS 5.1 Surround
The Metropolitan Opera / Sony Classical 88697910089
Plácido Domingo has been regarded as “remarkable for his age” for so many years now, that it comes as a bit of a shock to encounter the venerable tenor looking and sounding so impossibly young in a 1978 Metropolitan Opera performance of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci that has just been issued on DVD on the Met’s own label through Sony Classical.
Taking on both daunting tenor roles in the double-bill – Turiddu in ‘Cav’, Canio in ‘Pag’ – the youthful Domingo displays the gleaming, passionate tone, the generous high-notes and (just as valuable, even in such tabloid potboilers as these) the musical and dramatic intelligence to suggest a pair of complex, three-dimensional characters racing toward pivotal moments in
There are telling distinctions between Domingo’s Turiddu and his Canio (beyond the unfortunate gray wig that makes Canio resemble someone’s Aunt Edith). Turiddu’s trademark swagger is tempered here by a palpable sense of fear, suggesting a once-cocky lothario who knows he’s taken one gamble too many and is fatally in over his head. Canio, on the other hand, feels decidedly older and, if not wiser, certainly more whipped and embittered by experience than Turiddu, and Domingo gives the world-weary clown a truly dangerous edge.
(‘Un tal gioco’ is chilling.)
The tenor has the good fortune to be paired with two outstanding singing-actresses. Mezzo Tatiana Troyanos, as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, is the black-clad, Sicilian scorned-woman to the life, making the part her own with telling body language and the smoldering emotional tension she generates. If her chest-voice lacks the punch some famous singers of the past brought to the role, her quick vibrato adds luster to the big moments.
As Nedda in Pagliacci, the great Teresa Stratas creates another indelible portrayal – a wonderful supplement to her unmissable work on view in the recent DVD boxset marking James Levine’s 40th anniversary at the Met. The highest notes in her otherwise lovely, silvery soprano can tend towards harshness here, and the opera-within-the-opera makes it clear that broad comedy doesn’t engage this artist as keenly as psychological drama and emotional implosion. But these things are of little import given the hypnotic identification she brings to the role and the wealth of behavioral detail she finds in every scene. It’s difficult to imagine this part being portrayed more effectively or affectingly.
The singers surrounding Domingo, Troyanos and Stratas are generally strong, both individually and as members of a tight ensemble, no one more so than baritone Sherrill Milnes – in magisterial voice as Tonio in Pagliacci, and acting with a nicely-gauged creepiness (though, physically speaking, he’d be easier to buy as a virile, strapping footballer than the deformed clown in Leoncavallo’s own libretto). In the same opera, baritone Allan Monk contributes a notably well-sung and sensitively acted Silvio. (Under certain lighting, though, his rather unnerving resemblance to George W. Bush makes for some unintentionally surreal viewing moments.) Completing the troika of baritones, Vern Shinall is a solid, if unexceptional, Alfio in the Mascagni opera, and Met stalwarts of the period, Jean Kraft, James Atherton and the kittenish Isola Jones, do fine musico-dramatic work in smaller roles.
The cast must share credit for their compelling approach to the
drama with the production’s original stage director, Franco Zeffirelli, and the director of the revival on view here, Fabrizio Melano. This was an era when Zeffirelli paid a good deal more attention to the moment-to-moment interactions between characters than he has done in his recent son et lumière extravaganzas. He and Melano make a point of showing us the human dimensions of characters so often reduced to hotheads, hysterics and outright sociopaths. Those moments where we see the love that still exists between Turiddu and Santuzza, or the compassion Mamma Lucia feels toward Santuzza, or the pain that Nedda experiences in having to leave Canio, tremendously enrich and ennoble the storytelling.
Wearing the hats of set and costume designer, Zeffirelli may be less ambitious here than in, say, his later, gargantuan Turandot or Traviata for the Met, but – for all the canvas-and-molded-foam quaintness of this Cav-Pag – he was already pursuing a David Belasco-like obsession for minute detail. And that mania for accuracy extends to his staging of the indulgently long Easter service Mascagni writes into his score. Indeed, there were moments when I imagined that the sheer volume of ritualistic data in that liturgical procession he creates could well qualify as a weekend’s church-going obligation for some of the more religiously oriented audience members.
These scores suit the then-young James Levine gratifyingly well. There’s plenty of gutsy, impassioned, soaringly lyrical conducting to be heard, and (despite less silken strings than we’re used to hearing now from the Met Orchestra), Levine draws some lovely playing from his musicians. (Listen especially for the Lohengrin-like radiance that blossoms in Leoncavallo’s Intermezzo.)
The audio mix is highly variable, with singers as often off-mic as on, and a halo of reverb that clouds the voices any time singers cross upstage. Video quality is what you’d expect in a telecast from over 30 years ago. But video director Kirk Browning has a knack for putting his cameras precisely where you want them to be, and a lot of production information (both in long-shot and in close-up) is conveyed in an elegant and unobtrusive way.
Even opera-lovers normally allergic to old-school, picture-postcard realism are likely to find this DVD addictively watchable.