BLO Cavalleria a welcome, if not triumphant, returnReview
After almost a year and a half with virtually no live opera performances, it seems strange that I can finally say, “I am going to the opera tonight” and not mean, “sit at home in a bathrobe and pajama”. But that is exactly what has happened in the Boston opera scene as of late: Boston Lyric Opera heralded the return of live performance with a beloved classic of the repertory, and did so with almost no real frills whatsoever in terms of where they performed it.
In this case, after some changes of plans, they opted to host their return to live performance in the Leader Bank Pavilion with a semi-concert staging of Cavalleria rusticana. It seems strange that they opted to go with a rather short classic of the repertory, but I actually like the decision — sometimes all we really want to come back to is a classic done particularly well!
Alas, aspects of this performance were more mixed than I would have liked. I understand the COVID-related reasons why they made this decision and it was nice to be in an outdoor space for once, but part of me wishes that more care was taken in the choice of venue; there was a good deal of ambient noise surrounding the Leader Bank Pavilion, including an Oktoberfest event just down the street and the sound of planes taking off from nearby Boston Logan. It really did let down the rather excellent orchestral playing since there were several moments that these noises covered them, and they only added to the distractions caused by a few patrons who had forgotten how to have proper audience etiquette.
Some of the staging choices were also a little strange in my estimation: Cavalleria rusticana is a work whose greatest asset is its economy of means, and there is really not much an opera company needs to do to keep the audience occupied. I was therefore completely confused as to why the production employed three interpretive dancers that danced some strange Martha Graham-style choreography in the first and last thirds of the show: as far as I could tell, they added nothing to the story, and in fact the production felt strongest when they were completely off-stage during the show’s middle third. It felt like the production did not trust Pietro Mascagni’s score to hold the audience’s attention, and I wish the dancers would have been excised at some point.
But we all know that we come to the opera for the singing, and for the most part the singers delivered. Adam Diegel’s Turridu got off to a rather shaky, pitchy start with the serenade that opens the opera, but once he found his footing in the more argumentative parts with Santuzza and then Alfio he really found his stride. Javier Arrey made for an unusually joyous Alfio, which made his switch into the role’s more menacing parts of the role all the more effective. His singing was also powerful, easily projecting over all the other sounds around him.
But of course, the real star of the show was Michelle Johnson’s Santuzza; as an actress she managed to toe the line between the role’s vulnerability and rage quite deftly, and her full, warm singing voice rounded out the character beautifully. Chelsea Basler and Nina Yoshida Nelsen rounded out the cast with the almost thankless roles of Lola and Mamma Lucia respectively, and while the latter had to deal with some truly bizarre stage business near the end they both put in a good effort.
And in an opera performance, what more can you ask for? I think the night, strangely, was best summed up by the opening act: BLO elected to open the evening with the prologue from Cavalleria’s much-beloved double-bill partner, I Pagliacci, with Arrey singing Tonio’s line. In any other circumstance this would have been a very confusing decision, but with the shadow of COVID-19 still hovering over everything it felt like we were welcomed back into the theater with open arms.
And despite all the hiccups, I have to say: it’s really, really nice to be back!