Review: New York City Opera's PAG Ditches CAV for Rachmaninoff's ALEKO

By: Sep. 12, 2016
Tenor Francesco Anile and soprano Jessica Rose Cambio
in I PAGLIACCI. Sarah Shatz/New York City Opera

After hearing Leoncavallo's I PAGLIACCI on New York City Opera's new double bill with Rachmaninoff's ALEKO, I'll never think of it the same way again.

PAGLIACCI is so familiar to modern audiences as part of a double-bill with Mascagni's CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA that it's hard to think of them as anything but CAV/PAG (in opera vernacular). True, they've both been paired with other works earlier in the 20th century--the Met even paired PAG with HANSEL UND GRETEL!--but the two are often considered halves of a whole, both verismo pictures of love and death in small Italian towns. CAV always seemed the winner to me, overshadowing PAG and its famous aria, "Vesti la giubba," even with a first-rate cast.

With this production's four performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theatre (sharing a drab stage design by John Farrell with the Rachmaninoff work from Opera Carolina), PAG stepped into the spotlight and seemed a very different opera. Its music sounded far more interesting than I remembered--perhaps in contrast to the bleak, very Russian score of ALEKO--put in the hands of a more-than-capable company, including the excellent City Opera chorus and the lively orchestra under conductor James Meena.

Tenor Francesco Anile--who recently had his moment in the sun when he stepped into the title role of the Met's OTELLO for an indisposed colleague--gave a powerful performance as Canio, the betrayed husband. His big voice fit nicely into the part of clown--the role doesn't call for subtlety--who has much to cry about and becomes unhinged by his unfaithful wife's affair.

Soprano Jessica Rose Cambio did well as the wife, Nedda, with a well-sung, smartly acted turn, while baritone Michael Corvino was a conniving Tonio, the piece's narrator and betrayer of Nedda. Baritone Gustavo Feulien--who was a charismatic Scarpia in Loft Opera's TOSCA last spring--offered a richly sung but overacted Silvio, Nedda's lover. Tenor Jason Karn was a charming Beppe (as well as the lover in ALEKO, the only soloist to do double duty).

Farrell's stage design--a rundown railroad siding--seemed more effective in the Leoncavallo than the Rachmaninoff, but, then, everything did, with director Lev Pugliese providing a lively PAG but unable to bring ALEKO to life.

I was only familiar with the Russian opera from performances of "Aleko's cavatina" at the Met auditions (here's the grand bass Ildar Abdrazakov in the aria); the opera is such a rarity that these performances marked its New York premiere. It was written by a 19-year-old Rachmaninoff while still a student at the Moscow Conservatory, with a libretto by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko based on a Pushkin narrative poem The Gypsies.

Besides the composer's familiar name--and the fact that ALEKO was written the same year as PAG, with a similar love triangle--the production (and performers) gave no clue why the grim opera was worth being disinterred. The high point of the performance was not the singing but a spirited dance sequence featuring Andrei Kisselev and Yana Volkova--an indication of the problems here.

There may be another mate around for PAG lurking in the wings--or maybe it's just time for a reconciliation with its long-time companion.


The double-bill's remaining performance is on Tuesday, September 13 at 7:30 pm.