Cav and Pag. Coming to the Hollywood Bowl as they did Sunday night, these might have sounded like the names of a pair of sitcom slackers. And there they were, generating laughs from a good-sized crowd of over 7,000, eager to hear what Gustavo Dudamel would do with a couple of not slackers but evergreen melodramatic operas.
Hardly made for laughs, though, Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Ruggero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" — short operas from the late 19th century long presented in double bills — are calamities of jealousy and murder. In the first, chivalry goes awry in the rustic countryside. The second centers on the sad side of commedia dell'arte clowns. But the chortles are our problem, since unchecked operatic sentiments, with texts emphasized projected as subtitles on video monitors, have an inescapable intensity that can generate nervous laughter.
But what these operas are made for is Dudamel. He has once again done it the hard way, using his annual Bowl opera with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a learning experience. He chose to conduct these two 70-minute scores for the first time under the arduous circumstances of the Bowl's limited rehearsal schedule and with a mismatched cast (although a good one) given practically no time to develop theatrical rapport.
Yes, there they were, Dudamel's "Cav" and "Pag," sounding maybe as good as they can get these days.
The Italian radio network, RAI, happened to broadcast online the other day a performance of "Pagliacci" from Teatro di San Carlo, the venerable Naples opera company, where Leoncavallo's opera has been performed thousands of times. The conductor was a noted Italian veteran. It was a leisurely and slovenly "Pag" that felt like a comfortable old operatic shoe that no longer has any support but is retained out of sentimentality.
Dudamel's great accomplishment was to create a sense of urgency that swelled out of the orchestral prelude to "Cav" and continued unabated through a long evening. He may not have achieved the best opera house "Cav" and "Pag," but the support from the podium was something you could put money on, and as much cheap sentimentality as reasonable was tossed out the window. The performers, en masse, rose to the occasion.
The issue for the singers was projecting believable theater. These operas ushered in verismo, opera as the stuff of real life, with emotions raw and highlighted. They are not works suited for concert dress with minimal production values. The clowns in "Pagliacci," for instance, beg for face paint, especially when shown close-up on video. Leoncavallo meant masked expressions to be unmasked by music.
No two in the cast seemed to approach their assignments the same way. Common to both operas were American tenor Stuart Neill and British baritone Christopher Maltman.
Neill is barrel chested and sings with powerful chest support. He appears implacable, never faltering, looking and sounding like he means business.
As Turiddu in "Cav," Neill was the cheating lover full of regret but with inner nobility. In "Pag," he was the jilted clown, Canio, who kills his wife, Nedda, in a rage over her lover. In both, he was a powerhouse. When he broke down in the famous aria "Vesti la Giubba," it was like an explosion abruptly obliterating sedimentary rock. Emotional repair was not possible.
Maltman is a versatile baritone and sophisticated actor, ideal for Mozart and Strauss and outstanding in modern operas by Britten, John Adams and, especially Thomas Adès. It was his turn to be the jilted husband, Alfio, in "Cav." In "Pag," he was the nasty hunchback clown, Canio, with a perverse crush on Nedda. Maltman, throughout, was a mesmerizing presence, especially in his revelatory approach to the prologue of "Pagliacci," which he treated like proto-Postmodernism.
The women were unalike as well. In "Cav," Michelle DeYoung was a conventionally impassioned Santuzza, Turiddu's intended, and Nancy Maultsby an unusually restrained Mamma Lucia, Turiddu's long-suffering mother. The surprise was Tamara Mumford, last seen as the purposeful Martha in Adams' "Gospel According to the Other Mary," here an imaginatively lusty Lola, for which she convincingly sang, acted and dressed the part.
In "Pag," Julianna Di Giacomo kept Nedda's flirtatiousness and terror reasonably in check, no match for Neill's volcanic outbursts. Christopher Tiesi's Beppe and Lucas Meachem's Silvio were understated.
Dudamel had a lot to keep together in a performance that also included a large Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus. There were mishaps. The instrumental minuet that began the clowns' play in the final scene of "Pag" (during which Canio stabs Nedda) had to be started over. Dudamel flashed a mea-culpa smile on camera and handled the reboot with a facility that made the error actually enhance an atmosphere of foreboding.
That, though, is as far as Dudamel allowed any sense of dread to proceed Sunday. With vital playing from the orchestra, he set scenes vividly. He energized the singers' emotional extravagances. He induced soaring melodrama. But he also managed to pay attention to detail, not taking anything for granted.