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Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air…
But where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

—Stephen Sondheim, “Send in the Clowns”

A performer entertains the crowd in Pagliacci. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are two short verismo operas that often appear together on a double bill, as San Francisco Opera has chosen to do for their 2018–2019 season, with a production originally from the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège. The entire production is about three hours, including one intermission between the two operas.

Verismo is an Italian operatic style that emerged in the late 1800s and can be considered a realist (or naturalist) style, with plots taking their inspiration from real life. In other words, verismo presents everyday people with everyday problems, albeit at the usual operatic extreme. [Side note: The other major non-Puccini verismo opera is Andrea Chénier, which opened the 2016–2017 SFO season.] I can’t say I’m a huge fan, despite naturalist author Émile Zola being a favorite of mine. However, this was my first “Cav/Pag” as the kids say, so maybe I shouldn’t be too quick to judge.

In both Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, the plot is fairly straightforward: a married woman is having an affair and her jealous husband kills her lover. But only one has clowns.

Pietro Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) (1890)
Based on: a novella and play by Giovanni Verga
Notable Cultural Reference: The Godfather Part III
Setting: Sicily, Easter Sunday, 1890s

Plot in 101 words or less: Villager Santuzza is pregnant by ex-soldier Turiddu, son of innkeeper Mamma Lucia. Before getting his gun on, Turiddu was with Lola, but when the cat’s away the mouse will marry someone else, namely Alfio. Because getting with Santuzza made Lola jealous (as planned), she and Turiddu start up again. Santuzza gets pushed around literally and figuratively, curses Turiddu, and tells Alfio what’s what. And… intermezzo. Everyone, drink! Well, everyone except Alfio, who refuses Turiddu’s wine and challenges him to a duel. Turiddu Mike Tysons Alfio’s ear—apparently it’s a Sicilian thing, not one of the “Ten Duel Commandments.” Justice is served.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: the Intermezzo

Laura Krumm as Lola, Roberto Aronica as Turiddu, and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Ruggero Leoncavallo, Pagliacci (Clowns) (1892)
Based on: an actual incident (maybe)
Notable Cultural Reference: Seinfeld, “The Opera” (clip 1, clip 2)
Setting: Calabria, Ferragosto (August 15), 1860s

Plot in 101 words or less: Traveling performers, including Canio—clowno numero uno—and his wife Nedda, come to town for a Ferragosto performance. Soon Nedda is by herself, singing Jenny Gump’s prayer. Tonio—clowno numero duo—tries to seduce Nedda, to no avail, mostly because she likes villager Silvio, who’s no fool. Unfortunately, Canio learns of their affair before they can run away together. The performance begins. Mise en abîme alert! The audience realizes too late that the jealous obsession playing out on stage is a little too real: Canio stabs Nedda, and then Silvio. In short, you are well advised to be scared of clowns.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “Vesta la giubba”

Amitai Pati as Beppe, Lianna Haroutounian as Nedda, and Dimitri Platanias as Tonio in Pagliacci. Photo by Cory Weaver.

While both of these operas as written take place in southern Italy, this production by Argentine José Cura sets both operas in La Boca, the Italian quarter of Buenos Aires. This mostly worked for me, although, if you didn’t read the production notes, I can see why you might be confused at times since the characters in this production overlap. For example, Pagliacci opens with Turridu’s coffin, Santuzza appears noticeably more pregnant in Pagliacci, and the character of Silvio now works in Mamma Lucia’s bar from Cavalleria. In fact, it is Mamma Lucia who utters the famous closing of Pagliacci—“La commedia è finita”—which I found a distinctly odd choice, whatever the rationale.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza (seated) in a scene from Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo by Cory Weaver.

As this was my first Cav/Pag, I went in fairly open to both operas. From what I had read, Cavalleria seemed to be considered the more “musical” of the two, but I came out highly predisposed to Pagliacci. The construction is far more creative, including the complex “play within a play” and the breaking of the fourth wall with the prologue, but it is also stronger from an emotional perspective and had more “breakout” arias to these ears.

As for the singing, it seemed a bit uneven. While I really loved the tone of most of the singers, at times they felt underpowered. This was mostly on the male side, as the women came off fairly well.

The highlight for me was soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Nedda in Pagliacci. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza in Cavalleria was also impressive, although I don’t think she had much to work with. Her acting certainly stood out: Given that the role is not particularly sympathetic, I felt for her. (If you remember, Semenchuk was also a highlight for me in Luisa Miller. I was even impressed by some of the smaller parts, such as Laura Krumm’s Lola, which is rare for me.

For the men, one obvious highlight was tenor Marco Berti’s delivery of Canio’s “Vesta la giubba” (I was rather relieved when he delivered on that since I felt he cut short the final note of “Nessun dorma” when I last saw him in Turandot). Berti was also one of the better actors: Despite his heavy makeup and mask, I really felt his anger. I also liked Merola graduate David Pershall as Nedda’s lover Silvio. He has been in a few things I’ve seen but I’ve never made note of him before. His love duet Haroutounian was very nice. I thought Adler Fellow Amitai Pati had excellent tone as Beppe and stood out in his aria even if it was a bit soft. Dimitri Platanias, the sole singer to truly have a dual role and making his SFO debut, as Alfio in Cavalleria and Tonio in Pagliacci seemed to do a little better with Pagliacci, especially in the prologue.

Amitai Pati as Beppe as Arlecchino in Pagliacci. Photo by Cory Weaver.

A distinct disappointment for me was the dance interlude. Given the resetting, I was hoping for a fiery Argentine tango with its classic snap kicking and I felt the choreography did not live up to its potential.

What did live up to their potential were my fellow operagoers, whose outfits (mostly) rose to the occasion. Unfortunately, the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage was fairly weak this year, so I’ve only included my own pictures below; however, I wasn’t able to capture all my favorite looks. For example, Komal Shah wore a beautiful Dolce & Gabbana floral number and Camille Bently donned a black, jeweled Christian Siriano gown, both of which were well suited for the “¡Viva La Noche!” theme.

There are six more performances of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci at the War Memorial Opera House on September 12, 16 (2 pm), 19, 22, 28 and 30 (2 pm).