Monday, March 31, 2008 | The stodgy, stereotypical night at the opera might include a long evening involving several hours of singing, a few intermissions and, quite possibly, a few patrons asleep in their seats. Under those pretenses, it’s difficult to imagine a double bill at the opera.

But two operas, “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” are traditionally paired together for an evening of entertainment. And San Diego Opera’s beautiful presentation of “Cav” and “Pag” (as they are affectionately nicknamed) stole the hearts of the audience. In fact, it stole San Diego Opera’s season thus far.

“Cav” and “Pag” obviously fit well together. Stylistically they are considered part of the Italian verismo movement: depicting everyday life situations, especially the life of the lower classes. Both operas examine human psychologies and both operate in “real-time” which serves to enhance and amplify the drama. Needless to say, both feature infidelity and crimes of passion.

Pietro Mascagni’s one-act “Cavalleria Rusticana” made quite a sensation on debut and remains his best-known opera. Based in a Sicilian village on Easter morning, the curtain opens on Turiddu as he sings to his lover Lola (New Zealand mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle.) As the sun rises, villagers emerge joyfully from their homes in anticipation of the Easter services. Ominously dark music accompanies Santuzza (American soprano Carter Scott) as she approaches Turiddu’s mother Mamma Lucia (American mezzo-soprano Judith Christin, always a scene-stealer) and begs her for information on the whereabouts of her rogue son. The day ends in scandal and tragedy.

Beautiful, direct music (conducted by Edoardo Müller) underscores the drama that surrounds the simple, direct characters. But there are flickers of darkness in the music; spiking the beauty with haunting sadness. Carter Scott effectively conveyed Santuzza’s agony but she also exhibited her alluring voice. Engaging and lovely, Scott’s voice has power to boot.

Tenor Richard Leech excelled as Turiddu, most notably during his drinking song. His rich voice was crystal clear and inviting-sounding. Leech is a San Diego audience favorite and did not disappoint.

Irish baritone Bruno Caproni’s sumptuous voice gave the cuckold Alfio strength and a sense of honor. Mezzo soprano Sarah Castle was perfectly cast as Lola; sassy and spirited.

There’s a lot for the chorus to do in “Cav,” all the better for us to see more of Timothy Todd Simons’ chorus-direction magic.

Sets are pretty and quaint and combined with the chorus’s detailed interactions it made for a supremely lovely visual production. I didn’t think the evening could get any better … until the curtain rose on Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.”

Inspired by “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Leoncavallo’s “Pag” features lust, betrayal and murder and is also composed in the verismo style.

The second opera of the evening opens with a notorious prologue: The clown Tonio (Bruno Caproni — Alfio in “Cav”) steps in front of the curtain to sing “Si puo?” Caproni leaves his “Cav” role in the dust and aces this one from his first aria.

Tonio’s vagabond commedia troupe includes: the leader Canio (José Cura), his wife Nedda (Elizabeth Futral) and her lover, Silvio (Scott Hendricks.) When Nedda thwarts Tonio’s attempts to seduce her, Tonio takes revenge and tells Canio of Nedda’s affair. Mad with jealousy, Canio kills Nedda and her lover during the troupe’s performance that night.

Futral captivates as the tantalizing Nedda, singing sweetly of the freedom of birds and swooning over Silvio. Vocally luminous and coherent, Futral lends charm and whimsy to the ill-fated Nedda.

As the tormented clown Canio, José Cura blew the production out of the water. Yes it’s a signature role for the Argentinean tenor, and yes I have heard of him, but nothing could have prepared me for this man’s voice and presence. The tenor commanded a voice completely and uniquely his own, though he reminded me a little of a young Placido Domingo. His interpretation of Canio’s famous aria, “Vesti la giubba,” rivals Pavarotti’s famous 1974 “Nessun Dorma.” Cura’s rendition of Canio’s anguish brought tears to my eyes.

An interesting tidbit: As Canio sings, he applies his white clown makeup. For this production, the makeup Cura uses is preset for one hour. San Diego Opera makeup artists had to test the makeup and figure out how wet to leave the makeup sponge so it wouldn’t dry out!

As Nedda’s lover Silvio, baritone Hendricks sings smoothly and seductively. Simeon Esper, who made a nice impression earlier this season in “Tannhäuser,” charms as the troupe’s harlequin.

Michael Whitfield’s subtle lighting effectively conveys the transformations from day to night in both operas. But in “Pag” the lighting takes on a magical effect, from the ethereal day-to-night sky to the delightful string of lanterns.

As in “Cav,” Lofti Mansouri’s stage direction meshes well with the large chorus ensemble.

It’s been 29 years since San Diego Opera last presented “Cav/Pag” — unequivocally worth the wait.

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