- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

After taking considerable chances earlier this season staging relatively unknown works such as Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah” and Handel’s “Agrippina,” the Virginia Opera is concluding its 2006-07 lineup with a pair of popular short operas - Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci.” Having opened in Norfolk on March 9, the company brings the shows to Richmond’s Landmark Theater this weekend before concluding its current run at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on March 30 and April 1.

Traditionally staged together, “Cavalleria” and “Pagliacci,” while musically differing, share similar “verismo” characteristics. Each charts the downward trajectory not of kings and queens, but of peasants and lowlifes whose difficulty in controlling their sexual and emotional appetites leaves carnage and destruction in their wake. The music in each is spectacular - the major reason both have remained in the active repertoire for more than a century although neither composer ever produced another hit. The plots of both are depressing, though, almost like episodes fresh out of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” In “Cavalleria,” the peripatetic soldier Turiddu already has gotten the innocent Santuzza pregnant and ex-communicated from the church before the curtain rises. Having abandoned her, he’s happily carrying on with traveling salesman Alfio’s flirtatious wife, Lola. As neither Turiddu’s mother, Mamma Lucia, nor Santuzza can steer him from his evil ways, it’s up to the returning Alfio and his trusty knife to set things aright.

In “Pagliacci,” Canio, the boss and lead clown of a traveling commedia dell’arte theater troupe, has taken a woman of low character, Nedda, as his wife to redeem her from her life on the streets and cast her as the conniving spouse in his comic show. Nedda is pursued by Tonio, a hunchbacked member of the cast, and Silvio, a handsome outsider to whom she succumbs. Sensing betrayal, the bitter Canio and his trusty blade take care of matters onstage during the evening show as theatrical fantasy morphs into bloody tragedy.

Stage director Lorna Haywood takes a nifty approach to the staging of these operas, using the same dusty Italian village as a setting for both, sharing background characters and chorus members and updating the time frame of both works to Sicily in the 1940s.

In general, the cast does a fine job in each opera, although the chorus was ragged in both during the March 11 matinee performances in Norfolk. Perhaps inadequate rehearsal time was to blame. The chorus did manage to pull things together, however, for the magnificent Easter hymn in “Cavalleria,” which provides an ironic contrast to the pervasive sinfulness of the opera’s central characters.

The standout soloist of the evening was mezzo-soprano Jane Dutton as Santuzza, a surprisingly strenuous role for a one-act opera. Equally adept was tenor Gustavo Lopez Manzitti, who sang the roles of both Turiddu and Canio, although his voice strained at times.

Baritone Andrew Oakden turned in sparkling performances as both Alfio and Tonio. Budding superstar soprano Cristina Nassif was superb in “Pagliacci,” creating an uncommonly nasty Nedda. Very buff baritone Michael Todd Simpson was impressive in his brief romantic turn as Nedda’s lover, Silvio

**

WHAT: The Virginia Opera’s production of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci”

WHERE: Mason University’s Center for the Arts, Fairfax

WHEN: March 30 at 8 p.m. and April 1 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $44 to $90.

PHONE: 703/218-6500 [EnSpace]

WEB SITE: www.vaopera.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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