For the birds

The revival Thursday of last season’s puzzling, uneven David McVicar production of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci should have been most memorable for the full-throated if unsubtle performances of its leading tenors, Yonghoon Lee and Roberto Alagna. But the most indelible moment for me occurred when during the surprisingly warm applause at her solo bow a “lone voice in the wilderness” booed Barbara Frittoli’s calamitous Nedda.  Never before at the Met had I been so tempted to join in.  

Although it has rarely reached the level of blood sport heard at many European opera houses and festivals, booing the production team at the premiere of a new staging has become fair game at the usually polite Met. But I’ve rarely heard singers booed there, other than Deborah Voigt’s first Siegfried Brünnhilde which, though acted with rare and moving delicacy, failed to convince a crowd by then also alienated from Robert Lepage’s lumbering “machine.” Although I love nothing more than joining an ear-splitting ovation, I have heretofore remained too much the well-mannered Midwesterner to shout my disdain at performers.

More than a decade ago Frittoli’s Fiordiligi delighted me and her somewhat under-powered Desdemona moved me. But her poorly sung Vitellia and Elisabetta during the Met’s 2012-13 season led me to shake my head in dismay, so I stubbornly avoided both last season’s Don Carlo revival and this season’s La Bohème premiere.

Ordinarily I remain in awe of opera singers respecting their talent and courage, but Frittoli’s wobbly and shrill assault on Leoncavallo Thursday, the latest, most dire example of her inexplicable continued prominence at the Met, just made me want to scream. Her strident “Stridono lassù” followed by her distracted, wiry contribution to the spellbindingly erotic duet with Silvio (my favorite pages of the score) kept me squirming. At the bitter end, I wanted to yell “bravo” to her brave lone boo-er.

Cavalleria’s heroine didn’t have an easy night of it either. After a decade of reinventing herself as a soprano, mezzo Violeta Urmana followed up last season’s Amneris with a return to Santuzza, a role she last sang at the Met in 2005. While her voice’s rich middle retains some of its early tang, the top is now frustratingly hit-or-miss although she joined Lee in powering out a few high notes in their curiously unthreatening duet. More often Santuzza’s climaxes rang out tight and whiny. Although a dutiful actress, she lacked to charisma to animate McVicar’s inscrutably dark, ritualistic production which requires her to be onstage throughout, often sitting at the left-hand front of the stage looking stricken—and uncomfortable. Like Frittoli, she declined to use chest voice, robbing the throbbing music of its visceral punch.

Jane Bunnell’s wan, underpowered Mamma Lucia suggested that a former Cherubino might not be the best choice for this earthy role, but Ginger Costa-Jackson ably embodied the village tart. After so lively and detailed a Falstaff, Ambrogio Maestri’s Alfio was disappointingly bland. Although he warmed up, his underpowered entrance lacked menace.

While the performance was preceded by an announcement that the tenor was suffering from a cold, Lee’s blunt, stentorian Turiddu showed few signs of indisposition. His refulgent singing (full of crowd-pleasing squillo) could have profited from some dynamic refinement, but one was grateful for his flair and abandon. His distracted, self-absorbed mamma’s boy could surely be forgiven for preferring Costa-Jackson’s saucy flirt to Urmana’s dour, brooding matron, just as one understood Lola stepping out on Maestri’s baleful brute.

Even more than these strikingly contrasted pairs in Cavalleria, this season’s Pagliacci cast too brought an unusual take on its band of traveling players placed in 1949 by McVicar. Initially, Frittoli (nearly unrecognizable in a smashing Gina Lollobrigida-wig) and Alagna made an unusually glamourous Nedda and Canio; one could well imagine them being quite the “it” couple 20 years earlier, she perhaps a pin-up girl, he an irresistible matinee-idol. Now for their public they still put up a good front, but gradually one saw the damage caused by declining fortunes and alcohol abuse. Tony Stevenson’s Beppe too was no ingénue but a frazzled veteran of too many exhausting provincial tours.

Beyond Frittoli’s tattered Nedda, the men eagerly seized on McVicar’s unusually buoyant, yet merciless vision. George Gagnidze imported the Duke’s Las Vegas microphone from Michael Mayer’s Rigoletto production for his witty and expansive “Si può?” He also supplied Tonio with a bracing bite, lacking in Maestri’s Alfio. Alexey Lavrov’s refreshingly “regular Joe” of a Silvio wooed Nedda with low-key, down-to-earth urgency rather than with the now-expected  gym-buffed “barihunk” allure.

Perhaps Lavrov realized it would be fruitless to try to compete with the enduring sex-appeal of Alagna, enviably handsome and fit at 52. While never the most subtle actor, he remains an unstintingly generous performer who limned a harrowing portrait of a man crippled with insecurities losing control. Where Marcelo Álvarez last season came across as a pathetic drunk, Alagna showed traces of a grand past, making his decline into madness all the more chilling. In secure, ringing voice and subduing his occasional tendency to bray, he delivered a harrowing “Vesti la giubba” before collapsing onto the stage in convulsive sobs.

Last season Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi was the great hero of this production’s premiere. However, he failed to rise to that high level in this revival as, despite many marvelous moments, Cavalleria emerged as fragmentary and occasionally lethargic. But Pagliacci bristled with nervous energy, while he also showed humane support for his soprano as she labored through her Ballatella.

Much of McVicar’s Pagliacci remains mostly a delight; the inventive if occasionally distracting comic routines (courtesy of “Vaudeville Consultant” Emil Wolk) faultlessly carried out by Marty Keiser, Andy Sapora and Joshua Wynter. Thanks primarily to Alagna’s full bore intensity, the concluding double-murder proved shattering. Its stage ever-revolving mindlessly, his sunless Cavalleria, however, continues to frustrate as dizzyingly misconceived, its ersatz-Broadway choreography for Alfio’s entrance again particularly laughable.

Might a more arresting Santuzza rescue this sepulchral Mascagni? The opulent soprano powerhouse Liudmyla Monastyrska who was seen in the role at last year’s Salzburg Easter Festival opposite Jonas Kaufmann arrives on February 13. Maybe she will efface unhappy memories of an at-sea Eva-Maria Westbroek and a straining Urmana. Unfortunately though, poor Alagna remains chained to Frittoli for the other 10 performances.

Photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.