Lack of dramatic fire, problematic venue defeat BLO’s “Cavalleria”

October 2, 2021 at 9:23 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Alfio (Javier Arrey) sings to admirers in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo: Liza Voll

Boston Lyric Opera has a history of transforming unusual spaces for operatic performances. Two years ago, the company staged Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale convincingly at a Harvard gymnasium. And a North End ice rink served as a colorful carnival scene for the fall 2019 production of Pagliacci.
For its staging of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, which opened Friday night after the company’s 18-month pandemic hiatus, the BLO set up shop at the Leader Bank Pavilion—a dockside, open-air rock venue specifically designed for a capacity crowd. 
While it may be ideal for the Megadeth and Violent Femmes concerts heard there in recent weeks, the pavilion, situated within earshot of Logan Airport, served as a reminder that opera—especially the lyrical beauties of Cavalleria—requires a more removed and intimate setting.
Mascagni’s stirring tale of passion and murder at the hands of a jealous husband continues to invite wide-ranging interpretations from stage directors. Though Friday’s performance featured stellar singing, Giselle Ty’s symbolist staging struggled to make the most of the venue and the work.
Ty has garnered praise for her work with Boston’s smaller opera companies. The past decade has seen her create effectively minimalist and delightfully absurdist productions for Opera Brittenica’s 2013 performance of The Rape of Lucretia, and Guerilla Opera’s Let’s Make a Sandwich from 2014.  
Her vision for BLO’s Cavalleria recalls those performances. Simple chairs arranged in rows and cluttered heaps were just enough to highlight the tension that roils beneath the surface of life in an idyllic Sicilian village. The stage directions, for the most part, kept the action moving swiftly, allowing for the characters to express their emotions between scenes through pantomime. Dancers Victoria Awkward, Michayla Kelly, and Marissa Molinar, through energetic movements, interacted with the cast in ways that never distracted from the story.
Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes also served Ty’s vision. Colorful dresses for the women were splattered with blue across the heart, midsection, and lower extremities to reflect the hold that Turiddu, dressed in a rumpled blue suit, had upon each of them.
Yet this production failed to rise to the opera’s most arresting moments. When the dangerous Alfio, sung by Javier Arrey, confronts Turiddu, portrayed by Adam Diegel, over his affair with Lola, the singers deliver their lines while blandly facing the audience. Even Diegel’s poignant singing in Turiddu’s farewell to Mamma Lucia felt visually stiff and impersonal due to what looked like unfinished staging. Crucially missing was any sense of heightened dramatic tension.
The captivating singing, necessarily amplified to counteract the pavilion’s noisy surroundings, made up for such deficiencies.
Michelle Johnson was the star of the evening, her beaming soprano finding every nuance of the love-torn Santuzza. Johnson conveyed the reverential power in “Inneggiamo, Il Signor non morta” as Santuzza looked to God for forgiveness over her affair with Turiddu. Her scene with Diegel captured all the horrors of a couple caught in a toxic relationship, the two joining their voices for an impassioned “Battimi insultami.”
Diegel’s vibrant tenor carries most of its weight in the middle register. Or so it seemed in the opening “O Lola, c’hai di latti la cammisa,” his voice lacking heft on the high notes and even fading uncomfortably in the aria’s closing flourishes. But he warmed into the role in the second scene, where he sang with bold resonance in his duet with Johnson. By opera’s end, Diegel managed to make Turiddu into a sympathetic character, rendering “Un bacio, mamma!” with the anguish of a man about to meet his death.
As Alfio, baritone Javier Arrey sang with a rich, dark tone that revealed the pride and anger of “A voi salute!” Arrey also had an out-of-character spotlight in the Prologue from Pagliacci, which, oddly, opened Friday’s production. Singing with inviting warmth, Arrey tastefully foreshadowed the tragedy that followed.
Nina Yoshida Nelsen made for a sensitive Mamma Lucia, her honey-toned mezzo-soprano complementing Johnson in the opening scenes. Soprano Chelsea Basler sang gracefully as the seductive Lola.
Conductor David Angus drew orchestral playing that revealed the zest and urgency from every page of Mascagni’s score. The Prologue took on plush tones in the strings and winds and the Intermezzo sounded with tender Italianate warmth. The BLO chorus, singing with a supple blend, captured the heavenly resplendence of the “Regina Coeli.”
Cavalleria Rusticana will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at the Leader Bank Pavilion.; 617-542-6772


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