18 November 2015 at 2.50pm | 4 Comments
A love triangle, secretive infidelity, vindictive jealously and premeditated murder, all set against the conservative backdrop of Catholic Southern Italy: this sounds like the perfect plot for an opera. Not just one, but two such operas – Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci – will soon blend together on the ROH stage, in a dramatic and vividly-lifelike production by Damiano Michieletto.
'What I’m interested in is what is emotional’ says the Venice-born director ahead of opening night of these two masterpieces by the Italian composers Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo. ‘That, for me, is the reason for theatre, to link the stage with the audience, and to have this passage of emotions, energy and surprises.’
First seen in 1890 and 1892 respectively, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are often performed together ‘because the themes of these operas are similar,’ he continues, and it’s these similarities of musical styles and dramaturgical themes that the director has tried to bring to life, inventively mixing the two stories together on stage.
‘From the beginning, when we start Cavalleria, we also meet characters from Pagliacci, as if this troupe of actors has already arrived in this village and they are announcing the show they’re preparing. We also see the love between Nedda and Silvio, which is part of Pagliacci, happening already during Cavalleria, so to really have a link again between the two stories, to keep the audience in a long, single journey.’
The two operas share many of the typical traits of verismo, the Italian movement that sought to portray the world with greater realism. The romantic kings and mythical gods of Verdi and Wagner are thus replaced by peasants who drink grossly, piously go to church and are brutally violent. In Cavalleria, the young villager Turiddu dies in a duel at his rival’s hand; in Pagliacci, the clown Tonio stabs his wife and her lover to death before the eyes of his horrified audience.
‘Violence is an ingredient of [each] story that you cannot avoid,’ continues Michieletto, who imagined the two operas’ setting as being close to that of a Western. America’s Wild West is replaced by a sun-baked, rural town in Italy with ‘physical language and body presence […] really rooted in a real, Mediterranean atmosphere’. And here we find chaos and confusion, and characters speaking loudly and fighting with each other. ‘It’s a really cruel and somehow archaic society.’
As in Michieletto’s ROH debut last year, Guillaume Tell, the chorus in his new production also plays a defining storytelling role. ‘I really think the chorus is underestimated in opera,’ he says, ‘most of the time because, as a director, you have very little time to rehearse with the chorus’. Despite such schedule limitations, he tries, however, to make the most of them as unique individuals, not just as a large ensemble. ‘I ask them to bring out their imagination. Usually I don’t show them what to do; I just ask to develop an action. And because they are different, they will develop differently.’
For the director, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci – like all operas – are about making the audience feel alive with vivid emotions. ‘You don’t need to precisely understand everything. If you don’t speak the language they are singing, you can still feel the emotions. I really trust the power of telling the story through music.’ And like Tonio’s prologue in Pagliacci, in which the clown tells the audience they are about to witness a slice of real life, Michieletto too wants to deliver something honest and real, ‘something direct, and clear and strong… and there is some blood too of course,’ he laughs.
Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci runs 3 December 2015–1 January 2016. Tickets are still available.
The ROH Insight event about Cavalliera rusticana/Pagliacci, featuring discussions with the cast and creative team, will be live streamed on the Royal Opera House YouTube channel from 7.15pm GMT on 19 November 2015. More details can be found here.