On Friday, February 26, 2016, I attended the Metropolitan Opera's double-bill of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Fabio Luisi conducted the two David McVicar productions, which premiered in April 2015.
Pietro Mascagni was 25 when Cavalleria Rusticana premiered in 1890; McVicar's production places it around the year 1900. This highly influential, one-act opera won first prize, beating out Puccini, in a competition for one-act operas by emerging composers. Its acclaimed start in the world of opera has been kept alive since its inception, as it has formed a part of the core repertory ever since. Its wild success helped spearhead the verismo movement, prompting other composers to write about real-life characters, who usually tended to be from society's lower classes.
McVicar's production places Pagliacci in the late 1940s and uses the same village backdrop as Cavalleria, giving the impression that the two operas take place in the same southern Italian village, two generations apart. Pagliacci premiered in 1892, and like Cavalleria, was a youthful hit for its composer. The two operas were presented together by the Met in 1893, making this combination standard practice around the world soon thereafter.
Where McVicar's Cavalleria was dark, with uniformly black costumes and sparse staging, his Pagliacci was colorful and circus-like, depicting the traveling theater troupe with their comedic bags of tricks, ranging from marvelous bursts of rainbowed confetti to slap-stick clown routines. Their theater-within-the-theater staging felt parodied at times, but ultimately, left a hyper-real impression due to its gloried color palette, which gave one the impression of watching a live opera in HD. Barbara Frittoli sang a sexy, entertaining Nedda; but the even greater pleasure was listening to her beautiful soprano voice, that stood out for its ravishing sensual appeal.