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