Long coupled in double bills around the world, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci parted ways at Opera Carolina nearly 30 years ago, immediately after the two were finally wed in Charlotte. Until then, the operas had appeared separately or in successive engagements during the seasons of 1957-58, 1969-70, 1974-75, and 1986-87. The transcendent popularity of Canio’s climactic aria in Pagliacci, “Vesti la giubba,” has given that opera a stronger grip in the repertoire, which accounts for Opera Carolina programming its most recent presentations of the work in 2006 and 2015 in tandem with two other one-acts. Yet the coupling with Cavalleria is very natural, since Leoncavallo wrote his opera in response to seeing Mascagni’s, and the two premieres were almost exactly two years apart.

Natural and convenient, for the current Opera Carolina production, conducted by James Meena and directed by Garnett Bruce, demonstrates how seamlessly two distinctively different works can be fused together – in their casting and design – after thousands of precedents spanning more than a century. We’ve seen greater scenic alterations in most opera productions at Belk Theater than we saw here from designers John Farrell and Michael Baumgarten for this twinbill. On stage right, the church façade remained the same, and across on stage left, a boxcar café was discreetly modified at intermission to become a boxcar theater. Between these, projections by Baumgarten could recycle the centerstage backdrop in the blink of an eye. More radical were the costume changes provided by Allison Collins, who reveled in bringing us the harlequin costumes of the Pagliacci clown troupe, and brought a more urban World War II flavor to the garb of the townspeople and visiting soldiers on leave.

Although billed on the OpCarolina website as “Pagliacci With Cavalleria Rusticana,” the two operas are presented in chronological order – the right choice if you’re building to a climax at the end of the evening. With extended instrumental sections at the start, Cavalleria isn’t as instantly impactful as Pagliacci, which begins with a member of Leoncavallo’s commedia troupe directly addressing the audience. For a one-act, the exposition of Cavalleria proceeds at a surprisingly glacial pace, all the more reason to be pleased with how beautifully Meena and the Charlotte Symphony perform the bountiful orchestral episodes.

We didn’t have to wait until the famous “Vesti la giubba” for the vocal splendor of this production to become manifest. Soprano Barbara Frittoli was already a rising star, soon to debut at the Metropolitan Opera, the last time Cavalleria Rusticana was performed in Charlotte, and now she’s the leading lady in both Cav as Santuzza and Pagliacci as Nedda in her Opera Carolina debut – though Yunah Lee will give her a breather in the Sunday matinee performance of the curtain raiser. Nearly as auspicious, baritone Leo An made his debut as the malevolent Alfio in Cavalleria and reappeared almost immediately as Tonio, the odious clown who greets us after intermission.

These are two marvelous singers, normally filling the quota of marvels we have heard in past years at Belk Theater. But we seemed to be entering a new golden age as the curtain rose on Pagliacci, for those two notables were joined onstage by baritone Nmon Ford as Silvio, Nedda’s secret lover, and Carl Tanner‘s long-awaited return to the Belk as Canio, after his 2010 triumphs in Carmen and Otello. Nor did resident company member Jonathan Kaufman sound at all outclassed in the tenor role of Turiddu, the soldier who heartlessly-yet-helplessly abandons Santuzza for Alfio’s wife, Lola. Likewise, mezzo Julia Woodward held her own as Lola, not at all hindered by a flaming red dress.

Everything was beautifully sung, but it was fascinating to note how Bruce navigates the inevitable changes in attitudes and social norms that have occurred since 1890, when Cavalleria Rusticana premiered. Audiences in 2023 may wonder why Santuzza, seduced by Turiddu, feels unworthy of entering a church on Easter Sunday after the adulterers betrayed her. Bruce inserts some silent business between Frittoli and a stranger that might be interpreted as solicitation, but otherwise he ignores the question, leaving us to assume that Santuzza’s sin is not getting a marriage proposal before sleeping with Turiddu. On the other hand, Bruce and Tanner must confront the reality that Tonio is not a pitiful cuckold we can empathize with anymore when he cold-bloodedly plots to murder his wife and her lover.

Tanner was a volatile volcano of jealousy almost instantly as Canio, and he didn’t sob the final notes of his signature aria to milk our sympathies. Distancing us further, Bruce took the final words of the evening from Canio and gave them to the sardonic and vengeful Tonio. Even here, political correctness reigns, for our host is no longer hunchbacked or deformed, though the ugliness of Tonio is retained from Leoncavallo’s libretto. Opera Carolina’s Pagliacci is thus cleansed while it is so magnificently sung, no longer asking us to empathize with Canio’s vendetta, or assuming that we will connect Tonio’s warped morality with his appearance. Most amazing, perhaps, were the Frittoli-Ford duets, still youthful and sensual. Great music can rejuvenate us all.