By Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo (respectively)
Houston Grand Opera
Maria Markina and Brandon Jovanovich in Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo: Felix Sanchez.
Houston Grand Opera’s recent productions of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci proved a terrific beginning to the season. Thepitch perfect, no-nonsense verismo twins of Cav and Pag. are fluff-free, get straight to the action kind of operas. The similarities are famous, both involve infidelity, jealousy, religious feasts, quaint Italian countryside settings, rousing chorus scenes, and of course, the obligatory tragic endings. It’s no wonder that these operas have kept their big hit status; they deliver great opera in compact packages.
Despite the commonalities, director Leslie Halla Grayson lent a distinct flavor to each production. Brandon Jovanovich, making his HGO debut, swaggered around with unfailing confidence as the adulterous lout Turiddu. Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick brought an earthy quality to the suffering Santuzza. With her emotional center in place her power radiates from the stage. Baritone Charles Taylor, also making his HGO debut, gave a strong, yet chilly, performance as the spurned husband Alfio. HGO studio member and mezzo-soprano Maria Markina was all lightness and sass in her Lola, the woman who seems fully unaware of the consequences of her behavior. Set and costume designer Michael Yeargan dressed his Cavalleria with an old master painting touch, rich with warm jewel tones and rustic charm.
Grayson goes for a more surreal hand in Pagliacci. Russian tenorVladimir Galouzine turned in an intensely stirring performance as Canio, the leader of the troupe of actors who, in the end, is undone by jealousy and rage. Soprano Ana Maria Martinez, looking smashing in her post war duds, lent just the right dose of frivolity to Nedda, the adulterous wife. Taylor’s troubled Tonio held the audiences spellbound in the opening prologue, while also hinting at the tragedy to come. Baritone Scott Hendricks is fully convincing as Nedda’s paramour, Silvio. Yeargan sets his Pagliacci in post World War II in its full dreariness. The monotone browns and grays created a striking contrast to the visual punch of the commedia dell’arte characters, lending a Fellini’s La Strada look, with enough whimsy to conjure a Marc Chagall painting. A fabulous troupe of professional clowns added to festivities. An old beat up truck cleverly transformed into an impromptu stage for the play within the play. Poetic stage pictures lend a poignant frame to this all-time favorite opera. Swiss conductor Oleg Caetani conducted the HGO Orchestra in a crisp and lively performance and the HGO chorus sounded magnificent. All in all, the real life drama of Cav and Pag made for one luscious launch to the HGO season.