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OPERA REVIEW

Boston Lyric Opera’s ‘Cavalleria rusticana’ is a triumph

Michelle Johnson (center) with Marissa Molinar and Victoria Awkward in BLO's "Cavalleria rusticana."Liza Voll

Easter morning in Sicily conjures orange trees scenting the air, larks singing among flowering myrtles, men in fields of golden grain. At least, it does if you have in mind Pietro Mascagni’s great 1890 verismo opera “Cavalleria rusticana.” And that’s the kind of setting Boston Lyric Opera might have planned for the production it had hoped to present at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre this month. Instead, COVID-19 necessitated a switch to the outdoor Leader Bank Pavilion in Boston Seaport, with the original four performances compressed into two. Performers and patrons faced the possibility of chilly temperatures, blustery winds sweeping in from the Harbor, and jets taking off from nearby Logan Airport. But the weather gods were kind to Friday’s opening, and the production was pretty much everything you could hope for.

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“Cavalleria rusticana” was a hit from the start: By the time of Mascagni’s death, in 1945, it had been presented over 14,000 times in Italy alone. The Metropolitan Opera in New York has given it more than 700 performances. A one-act piece running just 70 minutes, “Cavalleria” is often part of a double bill with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” Here it’s on its own, but Mascagni’s score is so rich, and the scenario is so dramatic, 70 minutes feels like a full evening.

And Friday there was a bonus: Baritone Javier Arrey opened the evening by singing the Prologue to “Pagliacci,” in which Tonio invites the audience to enjoy the upcoming show. Arrey was so commanding, so welcoming, so heart-on-sleeve, it seemed the show could hardly fail. And it didn’t.

The action of “Cavalleria rusticana” is compressed into a single Easter Sunday in a Sicilian village. We first hear Turiddu (Adam Diegel) singing an aubade to a woman we imagine to be his sweetheart, Lola (Chelsea Basler); he says that Paradise will not be Paradise unless she is there. But as the other characters — Turiddu’s mother, Lucia (Nina Yoshida Nelsen); the young woman Santuzza (Michelle Johnson); the carter Alfio (Arrey) — appear in the village square, we realize this is not going to be a blessed Easter. Turiddu, we learn, was engaged to Lola, but then he enlisted, and by the time he returned, Lola had married Alfio. Frustrated, Turiddu seduced Santuzza and even proposed, but that made Lola jealous, and now Turiddu has deserted Santuzza and taken up with Lola. Santuzza pleads with him; when he rejects her, she tells Alfio that Lola is unfaithful. Alfio challenges Turiddu to a duel; Turiddu, anticipating his fate, admits his guilt, asks Lucia to look after Santuzza, and goes off to die.

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At the Leader Bank Pavilion, the opera is sung in Italian; two video screens flanking the stage offer a view of the action as well as English subtitles. The camerawork is impeccable; the subtitles are easy to read, accurate in translation, and in synch. The BLO Orchestra is on stage, with the BLO Chorus behind stage right; David Angus conducts from a podium stage left. Angus brings lilt and pacing to the bittersweet opening siciliana and the famous Intermezzo; the chorus is radiant in the hymn “Regina Coeli.”

The principal singers, downstage, are set off from the orchestra by a line of yellow wooden chairs and a bouquet of flowers that constitute the “set”; it doesn’t look like much, but director Giselle Ty makes imaginative use of those flowers and chairs. Complementing the action is a trio of dancers — Victoria Awkward, Michayla Kelly, Marissa Molinar — who function as villagers, compensating for the COVID-necessitated absence of the chorus from the playing area.

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The singing is fine, in particular from Diegel and Arrey, big and easy and fully in character. Johnson is an intense Santuzza; it’s the hardest role, and the miking may rob her of some nuance. She’s certainly glorious in the “Regina Coeli.” Everyone’s acting is even better. Don’t miss the sequence where Lola sarcastically says it’s too bad that “sinner” Santuzza isn’t able to go to Easter Mass and Santuzza coolly answers that “God sees everything” (meaning Lola’s adultery), all while Turiddu looks as if he’d like to disappear. At the end, Turiddu goes from comic enjoyment (his post-Mass drinking bout) to tragic realization (his life is over) in a heartbeat.

The temperature Friday evening held at a comfortable 63, winds were negligible, and airplane noise hardly registered against the virtues of the production. No orange trees or singing larks needed for this outstanding “Cavalleria rusticana.”

CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA

Music by Pietro Mascagni. Libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci. Directed by Giselle Ty. Set, Julia Noulin-Mérat. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Lighting, Molly Tiede. Music direction, David Angus. Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Leader Bank Pavilion, Friday Oct. 1. Remaining performance: Oct. 3. Tickets: $10-$180. 617-542-4912, www.blo.org

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

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