BLO Stages Well-sung 'Cavalleria Rusticana' to the Seaport

by Ed Tapper

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 4, 2021

Javier Arrey in the BLO's "Cavalleria Rusticana"
Javier Arrey in the BLO's "Cavalleria Rusticana"  (Source:Liza Voll)

Opera is something of a spectator sport in Italy. So, it is no surprise that it is often played there in outdoor settings such as the Roman Baths of Caracalla and the Arena in Verona. These expansive venues are ideally suited to this most grandiose of musical forms.

The nomadic Boston Lyric Opera has mounted similar spectacles here, most recently a full-scale carnival for Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci," in 2019, at the Steriti Rink in the North End. It is fitting that, for its first major production since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company selected the vast, tented outdoor expanses of the Leader Bank Pavilion as its destination, and, as its vehicle, Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana," the work frequently performed alongside "I Pagliacci." It was a double bill that took nearly two years to complete.

Security was stringent. Audience members were required to wear masks, and were carefully screened for COVID vaccination before being allowed to enter the theater space. As the massive tent was completely open around its lower perimeter, the crowds appeared at ease in the outdoor setting.

Although the Pavilion was a perfect venue for audiences in the midst of this unique health crisis, it proved less advantageous for the BLO performing forces. In spite of the opera being presented in only a semi-staged version, the full orchestra, chorus, and soloists were crowded onto the stage. To make matters worse, the director interpolated dancers performing mime-like choreography between the singers, which further congested the stage space. Costumes and sets were bare-bones. Yet, it was the high level of singing and musicianship that fully satiated Boston aficionados starved for opera.

Before the "Cavalleria..." began, baritone Javier Arrey performed the challenging Prologue from "I Pagliacci," an ingenious touch that linked together the two BLO productions of these inseparable Verismo masterworks. Arrey possesses a supple, attractive bass-baritone, quite secure in the high register, Having warmed up with this demanding monologue, he went on to portray a convincing Alfio. His solo aria had has just the right swagger, and he tore ferociously into his duet with Santuzza.

Though not as vibrant a stage presence, tenor Adam Diegel did a credible job as the philandering Turiddu. His tenor has a thrilling ring in the high notes, which carried easily across the vast Pavilion space. In the style of Jonas Kaufmann, Diegel concluded his opening serenade at pianissimo volume, which proved a nice touch. He was believable and musically solid in his final drinking song and farewell scene.

Soprano Michelle Johnson was nothing short of terrific as the tragic heroine of the opera, Santuzza. Upon first hearing, one might mistake her for a mezzo, as the voice has a dark hue, and is ample in the middle register. Then it ascends with ease to rich, voluminous high notes. Her final note in the Easter hymn was breathtaking. She delivered a passionate "Voi lo sapete," and was vocally secure and dramatically involved throughout.

However, Ms. Johnson must share her laurels with the BLO orchestra and chorus who were outstanding under the fine musical direction of conductor David Angus. Soprano Chelsea Basler has become a regular with the ensemble, and is always thoroughly engaging, as she was here in the role of Lola. Talented mezzo Nina Yoshida-Nelsen is a newcomer to the company, but did a fine job as Mama Lucia.

Of course, the BLO itself must be credited for persevering during this extended period of uncertainty, and treating us to this well-sung "Cavalleria Rusticana."

For information about future performances and events, visit blo.org/streetstage.