Cher Public

Double jeopardy

Headlining the Met’s current revival of both Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, Roberto Alagna was operating on all cylinders Monday evening and—for better or worse—gave an old-fashioned star performance. What we got wasn’t so much Turiddu and Canio as a 54-year-old superstar whose bronzed, brawny tenor sounded in prime estate popping out (mostly) clarion high notes but not paying attention to much else. 

But there isn’t much dramatic verismo truth in David McVicars cold, dark production of Cavalleria first seen three years ago. While I respect his intention to turn the opera into something less scenic and more elemental, on my third viewing it still doesn’t work very well. The bare stage revolves constantly to little effect and having Santuzza onstage throughout only makes sense if you have a mesmerizing singing actress in the role and that simply didn’t happen with either Eva-Maria Westbroek or Violeta Urmana.

Although she appeared earlier this season in the ironically prophetic Verdi Requiem, Ekaterina Semenchuk was singing her first role at the Met in seven years. Having been her fan for years, I was greatly looking forward to her return to the stage as Santuzza but her portrayal proved disappointing. A dutiful rather than inspired actress, she too failed to make her character’s whining, nagging and cursing particularly sympathetic or compelling.

Her throbbing and imposing mezzo didn’t seem to be working all that well on Monday; even its characteristically gutsy chest register occasionally failed to make its usual impact. The middle often turned cloudy and the top was hit or miss, but when it hit it was thrilling.

She wasn’t helped by Alagna’s distracted preening cad who usually addressed the audience rather than the other characters. While the powerful Santuzza-Turiddu duet packed a visceral aural punch with both singers pouring out their fortissimo hearts, they sang it holding hands blandly facing into the auditorium.

If you had turned the sound down, it might have been the Liebesnacht! His eyes were only for Lola but perhaps that’s as it should be as that self-destructive infatuation seals his fate while Alagna’s impassioned self-regarding farewell was only half-heartedly directed to his mother.

As his new objection of affection Rihab Chaieb furthered the strong impression she had recently made as the Sandman in Hansel and Gretel with a lush Lola, sly rather than slutty. George Gagnidze barked his way through Alfio’s ungrateful music; his entrance aria wasn’t helped by his three hard-working back-up dancing boys, as before this production’s biggest head-scratching curiosity. The continued preference for the wan Jane Bunnell as Mamma Lucia stumps me—why hire a past-Cherubino for a role that surely calls for a past-Amneris?

Things improved markedly after intermission as Pagliacci continues to prove one of McVicar’s more appealing Met endeavors. From Gagnidze’s greasy, ribald prologue (complete with microphone antics out of the Michael Mayer Rigoletto) to the complex and witty commedia dell’arte play that evolves into the scene of the tragic denouement, the opera updated to the late 1940s bustles with urgent life.

Initially dashing and trim in his aqua suit, Alagna was more on point here broadly indicating both Canio’s easy charm and barely contained anger. He invested the big moments with full-throated passion and not a few sobs mercilessly milking the final self-pitying tableau for “Vesti la giubba.”

His wife, Aleksandra Kurzak, enacted a pert then desperately passionate Nedda but her sometimes thin and stressed singing, particularly in the climaxes of the ballatella and love duet with Silvio, suggested her move into heavier roles (Desdemona arrives in March in Vienna) might be premature.

Gagnidze was more in his element as Tonio, suitably grim and menacing and singing with bite while Andrew Bidlack charmed in Beppe’s sweet serenade. I had read promising things about Alessio Arduini but Silvio was my first chance to hear him live. Unfortunately the baritone sounded distressingly gray and old when you wanted instead young and warm for his ardent encounter with Nedda.

After Emmanuel Villaume’s awkward, unidiomatic Tosca last week it was mostly a pleasure to encounter Nicola Luisotti’s comfortable if occasionally slow readings, more attuned to Pagliacci perhaps than Cavalleria which often seemed unsettled and cautious. The chorus too took a while to settle down after the Easter Hymn was particularly adrift perhaps because during it that damned turntable just kept rolling along.

Semenchuk sings just two more performances including Saturday’s broadcast before Westbroek returns for the final four.

Also this Saturday the Met will be showing its new documentary The Opera House in many theaters throughout its usual HD network. This insightful, entertaining work which I saw at its world premiere at the Met itself in October features lots of irresistible footage of Leontyne Price.

For those in NYC, the movie will also have a regular run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center beginning January 26 with the filmmaker Susan Froemke and Peter Gelb appearing at a number of Q&As during the opening weekend.

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera


  • Camille


    It didn’t sound THAT differently in the house from what was broadcast, then? I had chosen to attend the last of Semenchuk’s performances as figured by then things might even out, and now I’m glad that I did. She has impressed me so greatly with her Amneris that I was hoping she might do this crossover role successfully but then, it was a cold night, a prima, and all that. The other Fach-hopper of the evening, Mrs Alagna, despite some thinness and reediness in the beginning, (to be expected) still actually trilled(!), and measured up to the role by the end of the second act. Tough sing. Needs a Tosca in parts and a Musetta in others. I think, with her kind of musical aptitude and intelligence she will ease her way into this and be quite different by the end of the run. She will doubtless have more opportunities as it’s a great gig for a couple and there is that little frisson of realness there since they are actually a couple IRL. Anyway, she is a smart cookie and will eventually succeed, I hope.

    Gagnidze, everyone loves to complain about and there are things that don’t quite fly right, but he does more right than wrong. The Silvio sounded dreadfully overparted and should best return to Schaunard. Beppe should take over the current Marios and Mario should takeover the Beppe.

    Mr Alagna is what he is: a risktaker and someone who confronts vocal matters balls out and fully frontal. If he gives a star’s performance replete with a star’s warts, that’s a whole lot better than watching another dreary hyped-up mediocrity. I’m certain it will all morph into something quite a bit MORE by the last performance and I may even brave the alternate Santuzza’s performance to hear how it comes out in the end.

    At least it sounded alive last night, if a little still messy and not perfect, a lot like a pretty good final dress. I’ve heard much worse … it’s January and a hard, bitter cold has overtaken Manhattan. It’s a long, long way from sunny Calabria and moody tempestuous Sicily, and dredging up the requisite CHI to manifest all this melodramatic murder and mayhem may take a great deal out of everyone. Let’s be patient.

    Thanks for the reminder about the opera house movie as I am thinking seriously of attending, if only to pay my respects to the great Miss Price

    • August

      Chère Camille, reading this from you is a symphony to my ears and I second the sentiment.
      “Mr Alagna is what he is: a risktaker and someone who confronts vocal matters balls out and fully frontal. If he gives a star’s performance replete with a star’s warts, that’s a whole lot better than watching another dreary hyped-up mediocrity.”

      • Camille

        That is very nice to hear and thank you very much, indeed for your thought.

        May I expand further to say that I have heard all manner of performances from this *STAR* tenor, and I have learned to face him with equanimity and to never expect ANYTHING from him. The night of performance always seems a lot to be mood du jour; therein lay a lot of the excitement, and also some of the occasional mal de mer. Whatever it is, I would rather not be BORED!

        Another thing which occurs to me is the fact he sings to the audience. Another one who does this is Anna Netrebko. Maybe that’s why, with all their respective peccadilloes and perceived flaws, they are *STARS*? The paying audience does so like to be at least acknowledged, and I am not making this up, you know.

        Thank you.

    • jacobelli

      “If he gives a star’s performance replete with a star’s warts, that’s a whole lot better than watching another dreary hyped-up mediocrity.”


      • Amen indeed.

        No names, Camille.

        • manou

          Au contraire -- name names!

        • Camille

          Comme Urbain le page a dit: “Non, non, non, non, non, NON!”

          Only a word to the wise.

          • manou

            A classy and unprecedented reticence in those pages…

  • chicagoing

    From the New York Times obituary for Pete Moore, original member of the Miracles, who died on November 19th, “Mr. Moore recalled that “The Tracks of My Tears” emerged from a guitar riff played by Mr. Tarplin that coincided with a joint desire to write a song inspired by the tragic opera “Pagliacci”. The Miracles returned to the “Pagliacci” theme in 1970 with “The Tears of a Clown,” which has direct references to the opera.”

  • CCorwinNYC

    I just received information from the Met’s Press Office that Westbroek has withdrawn from her four performances so Santuzza will be sung for the entire run by Semenchuk.

    • Camille

      Best news yet and thanx!

      Now, I will brave another performance near the end of the run to see if Semenchuk ever remotely manages to sound like either a soprano, OR a Sicilian, both of which she doesn’t even bother to make an attempt at and perhaps the reason why the acting or the personaggio or whatever may not be up to your rigorous standards. She was snorting fire as Amneris, that’s for sure.

      Although many mezzos, and possible my all-time favorite is Giulietta Simionato, can and do sing Santuzza, it is most definitely a soprano role, as could be heard by her attempts at taking soprano options in the duetto with Alfio later on. Not advisable in her case. I hope, as I esteem her so highly, that she will find a way to make it work for her but — as the Lady Macbeth of Los Angeles sounded similarly, I don’t know, I just dunno about these so-called crossover roles for this very gifted and important singer. Better a great Dalila, or even go as far as Eboli, but there is a fine line there in the sand….

  • Antikitschychick

    Thanks for this thoughtful and detailed review Mr. Corwin. I am glad that NY audiences are getting to hear Semenchuk after such a long absence. I wonder why it took so long for The Met to book her again…? She’s certainly a great singer (she was definitely ‘on’ during the Requiem rehearsal I saw and sounded absolutely amazing) and a committed actress. She’s also a sensitive musician (she can modulate her voice and dynamics VERY, very well) and a smart woman. I read a more or less recent interview she gave and she had good insights about the characters that she sings.

    As far as her acting chops, I certainly thought she was inspired in that Salzburg Aida opposite AN and, I say this with the utmost respect but I do think describing her as dutiful rather than inspired is a bit harsh. How many opera singers can we really say are inspired actors? I know that’s largely a loaded and subjective question but I would argue there’s really not very many…and she’s definitely one of the better ones. Granted, I’ve only seen her in a handful of roles but each time she has been nothing short of brilliant. I guess it depends on what one’s definition of inspired is…if by inspired you mean totally spontaneous on stage, then I would tend to agree with you but she’s definitely not a boring singer who just goes through the motions in a robotic fashion. She’s a passionate performer. At least that’s my impression of her thus far.

    I would have definitely gone to see her in this as I’ve been wanting to see her in a fully staged opera for a while now but I really just don’t like that McVicar production of Rusticana and preferred not to sit through it again. Maybe with Alagna it’s worth it but…idk. There’s a lot I wanna see in the spring too.

    Kurzak is another singer I admire and is most probably an improvement over Frittoli who sang Nedda two seasons ago. I also completely agree that the Pagliacci production is much better than the one for CR and I would go see it if it were being presented on its own.

    Anyway I hope we will see/hear more of Semenchuk in future seasons especially since she is now in her prime ????.

    • grimoaldo2

      I’ve seen Semenchuk as Federica in Luisa Miller in SF and Amneris in DC, as well as a webcast of her as Eboli and enjoyed her performances immensely every time, in every way.

      • mirywi

        Semenchuk is who I remember from the DC Aida.

  • RudigerVT

    Spot on. Was there. The turntable, in both operas, was pointless. Went with a friend who’s sung Santuzza (twice) and she also found the directorial conceits to be unconvincing. Jane Bunnell is a respectable, reliable house singer and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though yes, it’d be more fun to see, oh, I don’t know….Ewa Podles? I think it’d be tough to recruit singers of that ilk into this production.

    Meanwhile, chorus and orchestra were awesome.