A legacy of the lockdown in the classical music world was the length of the 21-22 season. In a typical year, most urban orchestras and opera companies would close in mid-May. Not this time: after two years of postponements, and with lost revenue to recover, the seasons stretch out like the finale of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. Audiences are rumored to be overstretched, and while it would be naive to infer anything fundamental from a handful of vacant seats, it was surprising to see empty patches for the Royal Opera’s first night. cellar and Page. The absent Kaufmaniacs, disappointed by Jonas’ latest no-show? (He canceled last month with Covid-related vocal issues, and has since confirmed he won’t appear later in the run.)
Or an insufficiently appetizing offer in an unusually crowded area? There’s something about the automatic pairing of these two operas that still carries with it an air of store closet. A reliable watch, then, pulled from the shelf at the end of a long year, and failing the taste test in the absence of Big J’s hot sauce? Not at all: even after multiple changes, it was a cast to make your mouth water. SeokJong Baek, straight out of Samson and Delilah, took the role of Turiddu, and Roberto Alagna sang Canio. Add Pappano to the pit (and he really is the deal breaker in this sort of repertoire) and it was anything but a bland warmup. It was a large inch-thick chunk of rare verismo sirloin, encased in oil and garlic and slapped directly over hot coals.
Damiano Michieletto’s double production has been around since 2015 (Noa Naamat did this cover), but it was new to me. Both operas are set in the same modern Italian village, but the sets – all shabby stucco and sun-scorched weeds – are ingenious and atmospheric; only a die-hard literalist could argue against it. Two of Michieletto’s decisions shocked. One was the pair of mime sequences in which the characters from each opera appear briefly in the other: it was a bit too neat, although the audience seemed to like the happy ending invented by Santuzza. The other was Alessandro Carletti’s lighting, which creates an engulfing sea of darkness, so that a blazing Sicilian noon (or a summer dawn or evening) looks like a permanent arctic midnight. This is exactly what lighting designers are looking for right now, it seems. You shrug, adjust, and enjoy the show regardless.
Which shouldn’t be too difficult: it’s faithful and highly imaginative staging, with vivid naturalism (Michieletto sets up a moving crowd scene with immense panache) illuminated by sudden freeze frames of melodrama raw – in other words, a bit like the music of Mascagni. . The fatal scherzo from a Leoncavallo score gets a more subtle treatment, with a nauseating green light sliding across the stage to mimic Canio’s increasingly feverish imaginations. Baek’s edgy tenor makes him a confident alpha male Turiddu; Dimitri Platanias is a brittle Alfio in cellar and a truly intimidating smokey-voiced Tonio in Page. Alagna, meanwhile, is that rewarding point of a star’s career where the early vocal glamor has long since eroded, but the accumulated dramatic experience and sense of line more than makes up for it. He leans into the worn patches of his voice, sparing nothing in a heartbreaking “Vesti la giubba” and playing on his rapport with the Covent Garden crowd to briefly – but unsettlingly – tilt your sympathies in favor of Canio.
And yet, he never eclipses the undisputed star. Aleksandra Kurzak was a deeply touching and vulnerable Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and a sensual and courageous Nedda in Pagliacci – singing, cover to cover, with vibrant lyricism and heartbreaking sweetness. In the bright, sunny glow of Pappano’s orchestra, it all comes together, and the result is a pair of passionate, engrossing thrillers inhabited by desperately believable characters. Not Jonas, obviously, but the opera is bigger than any star, and there’s plenty of sizzle on that steak.
It’s been a good year for late romantics too. Stanford’s 1897 Requiem Mass was one of countless choral epics commissioned and quickly forgotten by Birmingham’s triennial festival in the half-century between its two lucky hits, Mendelssohn’s Song. Elijah and that of Elgar The Dream of Geronte. As a summer project for the University of Birmingham’s 100 Voices, it was heroic – 90 minutes of lofty, Brahms-adjacent choral music, crowned by Carolyn Sampson’s spotlight soprano and accompanied by a CBSO sound radiant under Martyn Brabbins. But it was the student choir (formed by the CBSO and LSO choirmaster Simon Halsey) that really gave this performance its sparkle – singing with a transparency, precision and sensitivity that made the greats shine. climax like a halo above Stanford’s sometimes murky orchestral writing. Whether the Stanford Requiem has been performed in Birmingham since 1897 is unknown, but it is unlikely it has ever sounded better.