The Sunday Times, 5 April 2015
Hugh Canning
Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo: Pagliacci, Salzburg, 28. März 2015
Clowning glory
Jonas Kaufmann brings a brace of star turns to Salzburg

Opera’s megastars are out in force at the most prestigious continental festivals, in Salzburg, Baden-Baden and Berlin, where top conductors — this year, Christian Thielemann, Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim — lord it for 10 days in front of Europe’s most affluent audiences.

A top-price ticket for the German “hunkentenor” Jonas Kaufmann’s double debut in Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry, by Pietro Mascagni) and Pagliacci (Clowns, by Ruggero Leoncavallo) comes in at a cool €420 (£305) in Salzburg. In Baden-Baden, Rattle’s Der Rosenkavalier, with his wife, Magdalena Kozena, in the title role, and Anja Harteros — arguably the most sought-after, if sometimes elusive, soprano in the world today — as Richard Strauss’s wistful Marschallin, is a relative bargain at £70 less.

These deluxe festivals may reinforce — unfairly — a widespread view of opera as elitist, but they sometimes hit their stated target of artistic excellence. In Salzburg, the Easter Festival’s retiring intendant, Peter Alward, has scored a coup by casting Kaufmann in both the Cav and Pag tenor leads, and showcasing him advantageously in one of the world’s most singer-unfriendly auditoriums, the Grosses Festspielhaus.

Philipp Stölzl’s spectacular staging makes ingenious use of the Festspielhaus’s “Cinemascope” stage, yet achieves remarkable intimacy by dividing a massive framework into six smaller chambers on two levels, and using cameras and video projections to show the characters in close-up. Thus, in Mascagni’s melodrama of adulterous passion and omerta retribution, Turiddu’s affair with a married woman, implicit in the opera, can be made explicit here: Kaufmann sings his morning song to Annalisa Stroppa’s luscious-looking Lola across the rooftops to her open window. And at the murderous denouement, we can see Alfio — in the imposing form and voice of Ambrogio Maestri — wiping blood from his knife outside the church while the dying Turiddu, clutching his wounds, crawls towards the altar inside.

Although the big chorus scenes teem with Zeffirellian detail, the look of this Cav is very much steamy, black-and-white, postwar Cinecitta. The only significant departure from the libretto is the suggestion that Santuzza is living (in sin?) with Turiddu under the disapproving eye of his fearsome mother — a vintage cameo performance from Stefania Toczyska, a noted Carmen and Azucena in the 1980s, in still penetrating voice — and that they have a 10-year-old son.

Even if Stölzl’s Pagliacci staging is not quite as fresh or innovative, it properly offers a complete contrast: a riot of colour as a huge fairground, rather than just a makeshift touring theatre, is constructed before our eyes. Here, the six compartments are used to offer scenes from different perspectives, so we can watch the commedia dell’arte play with centre-stage seats while being able to see the reactions of the on-stage audience viewing the theatre at an angle.

Kaufmann’s Canio perhaps lacks the decibels of a Caruso, Del Monaco or Corelli, and, as always, one hears grumbles about his lack of authentic Italianita in such a role — to which I respond, “Pah!” — but he creates an entirely original character, one barely recognisable as the same person singing Turiddu, and is not afraid to show an unsympathetic side early on, when he slaps a naughty child. He conveys the brooding, pent-up fury of the homicidally jealous husband as convincingly as any singer I have heard, and nails the money notes with ringing éclat.

His co-stars — Maria Agresta, a slightly blowsy Nedda; Dimitri Platanias, a stentorian, if too cuddly, Tonio; Alessio Arduini, a handsome but not vocally seductive Silvio; and Tansel Akzeybek, a characterful Beppe — are not in his league, but he doesn’t grandstand over them. Kaufmann may be the world’s outstanding opera tenor, but he’s also an intelligent ensemble player. His double act here is a personal triumph. Although primarily renowned for their Wagner and Richard Strauss, Thielemann’s Staatskapelle wallowed in Mascagni’s sumptuous earworm melodies and gave us a Cav intermezzo of Karajanesque “Wagnerismo” expansiveness.

Alward emerges from his six-year stint — during which he rescued the festival from bankruptcy and pulled the Thielemann/Dresden rabbit out of a hat when Rattle and his Berliners decamped to Baden-Baden — looking bright and shiny. A golden end to a distinguished career in classical music.
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