TAMPA — Who cares if Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci are done to death by opera companies? Lust, jealousy, infidelity, revenge and murder are always in style, as Opera Tampa proved once again in a top-flight staging of the durable double bill — invariably paired together and dubbed Cav and Pag — Friday at the Straz Center.
The opera company is pulling out all the stops to give its venerable conductor and artistic director, Anton Coppola, a farewell season to remember. The production features a strong cast, outstanding orchestra and chorus (the chorus master is Gregory Ruffer) and a smart young director, Michael Shell. Coppola, who turns 95 in March, is stepping down after performances of Verdi's Aida in April.
Cristina Nassif was riveting as Santuzza, the pregnant, excommunicated peasant girl of Cavalleria, and then as Nedda, the wanton ingenue of Pagliacci. The role of Santuzza has the luscious coloratura that defines a prima donna, and the soprano soared in passionate arias such as Voi lo sapete, but she also brought rare subtlety to her scenes with Turiddu, the Sicilian rake who wronged her. During the intermezzo, she expressed Santuzza's anguish without singing a note, simply by her poignant presence alone in the empty square outside the church that she was not allowed to enter.
Nedda is a different sort of diva — a kind of cut-rate Carmen — and here, too, Nassif gave a compelling portrayal of a woman not without resources, mainly sexual, but ultimately trapped in a man's world of shocking brutality.
Scott Piper's Turiddu had a vaguely comic appearance, being stuffed into a vested suit that seemed a size too small for his burly build, but his opening serenade to Lola — he sang from the orchestra pit — established his bona fides as a tenor of rich, conversational warmth. As Canio, the tormented clown of Pagliacci, his two sobbing arias contained just the right mix of pathos and self-loathing, punctuated by violence.
Michael Corvino was shudderingly scary as Tonio, the deformed, malevolent clown in Pag, as well as singing Alfio, the whip-cracking cuckold in Cav. Also in Cav, Susan Nicely was a fine Mama Lucia, but Dawn Pierce, as the two-timing Lola, didn't make much impression. In Pag, Ian O'Brien had a delightful turn as Beppe, and Keith Harris was properly ardent as Nedda's swain, Silvio.
Shell's staging was traditional, and in tandem with Coppola's sensitive musical pacing, it gave each of the dramas a beautiful sense of naturalism and inevitability, from big moments, such as Santuzza's agony on the church steps, to little cameos, like the charming wedding photo scene in Pagliacci. The Italian village sets from New Orleans Opera were impressive. The ramshackle play-within-a-play that winds up Pagliacci was a wonderfully atmospheric evocation of commedia dell'arte.
Ruffer's chorus shone in the Easter hymn and other numbers in Cavalleria Rusticana. Coppola drew unspeakably lush playing from the orchestra in the intermezzo of the Mascagni opera.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.