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The week in classical: Cavalleria rusticana/ Pagliacci; OAE/ Suzuki: Christmas Oratorio; The Sixteen: Messiah – review

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Good taste, that old killjoy, has done its best to smirch the reputation of the Italian double bill known as Cav and Pag. It hasn’t worked. These operas will never lose their appeal. If anything they have more potency than ever. Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1889) and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892), one-hit wonders for their composers, portray crimes of passion in impoverished village communities, with soaring music to match. The novelty of seeing ordinary people on the operatic stage caused a popular sensation when the works were new. The perceived sleaze and crudities of the stories only added piquancy.

Damiano Michieletto’s 2015 staging, set in a filmic postwar Italy, has returned to the Royal Opera House for its third revival with a star cast, conducted by Daniel Oren. Its depiction of violence to women, perhaps heightened, post #MeToo, by the revival director Noa Naamat, is unsparing. Each opera, in Paolo Fantin’s designs, makes use of a revolve. In Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic chivalry) a statue of the Madonna is carried in front of the village bakery for the Easter parade, while hot adultery plays out behind. The clowns in Pagliacci perform a show in a school hall. Backstage and front swivel cleverly like a sadistic Noises Off.

An opera company is not an idea, or a building. It is a body of highly skilled people who make the magic on stage happen

In Cav, slow to get going but a vortex of emotion once it does, Roberto Alagna showed continuing vocal prowess as Turiddu, mamma’s boy and village stud, with Aleksandra Kurzak (she and Alagna are married) ardent as the spurned Santuzza. Elena Zilio, returning as Mamma Lucia, once again triumphed as the archetypal Italian widow-mother. Dmitri Platanias blows a hurricane of cold fury as the cuckolded Alfio and Rachael Wilson is coquettish and convincing as his free-range wife, Lola.

Only Platanias performs in both operas, becoming a resonant Tonio, the creepy weasel in Pagliacci. The tenor Jorge de León made a notable ROH debut as the murderous Canio, high notes ferocious and accurate, with Anna Princeva compelling as his young wife, Nedda. Chorus work was deft and well choreographed. The orchestra under Oren, who seems to get a routinely bad press but did a respectable job, brought out the bright colours in these two impassioned works. This is a classy show, worth trying to see.

The rest of this column should have been devoted to two seasonal events: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, performed over two evenings by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and OAE choir, conducted with fiery modesty by the Bach authority Masaaki Suzuki; and Handel’s Messiah, sung by the Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers. In the Bach, the youthful soloists stepped forward from the 15-strong vocal ensemble led by Guy Cutting (tenor), a first-class Evangelist, clear, expressive, but without mannerism. His brother, countertenor Hugh Cutting, soprano Jessica Cale and bass Florian Störtz were equally distinctive, with buoyant instrumental solos, too, from the OAE.

The Sixteen, enlarged to 18 singers, had a bigger, warmer sound, different but similarly thrilling. Handel’s masterpiece is core repertoire for them. You hear that in every note. Christophers lets the work breathe, and was blessed with particularly brilliant upper voice soloists in Hilary Cronin (soprano) and Helen Charlston (alto).

Forgive the brevity. Remaining space must be given to news that English National Opera will move to Manchester, by 2029. Greater Manchester has a population of under 3 million. Greater London’s is nearer 10 million yet apparently cannot sustain two major opera companies. Opera North, an exceptional and focused organisation, performs regularly in Salford. Everyone – ENO, Greater Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, the Labour council and city mayor, the new Factory International, the Lowry, Arts Council England, Opera North and, for good measure, the government, the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House, as well as a few more – is delighted, according to the press release.

Everyone, we must assume, except ENO’s chorus, orchestra and technical staff, whose future is bleak, and whose collective voice is unheard. An opera company is not an idea. Nor is it a team of administrators. Or a building, even one as troublesome but loved as the Coliseum. It is a body of highly skilled musicians and backstage magicians who, through their hard-won expertise, make it all happen. They give the company its identity, its character, its sound, its sense of community, its quality, its spirit, its ethos, its heart. If they too are delighted and thrilled, so will I be. For now, I reserve judgment.

Star ratings (out of five)
Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci
★★★★
OAE/Suzuki: Christmas Oratorio
★★★★
The Sixteen: Messiah
★★★★