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'Bluebeard's Castle' and 'Gianni Schicchi'

Every once in a while, a trip to the opera offers "two for the price of one," an operatic double bill, and the pairings are often predictable.

The most popular combination is probably the one known as "Cav-Pag": Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. Both operas are lurid, Italian dramas centering on illicit lust and murder — a pair of verismo potboilers.

The duo of operas we've got for you here also works like a charm, but it isn't nearly so obvious. One opera is Italian, the other is Hungarian. One has more than a dozen characters, the other has only two. One is a good-natured romp, while the other is a sordid psychological thriller. And while both operas appeared in the same year, 1918, their music could hardly be more different.

The "on deck" opera in this pairing is Giacomo Puccini's hilarious Gianni Schicchi. Admittedly, Schicchi is something of a black comedy, a satirical farce with a corpse taking center stage. And Puccini borrowed its premise from a source that's hardly a barrel of laughs: Canto 30 of Dante's Inferno. Still, black comedy or not, Puccini's Gianni Schicchi is one of the funniest operas you'll ever hear.

Leading off the double-header is Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. This one is gloomy from start to finish, though the score does achieve an oddly thrilling level of bleakness. We listen, a bit voyeuristically, as a young bride slowly discovers the hidden, sadistic side of her new husband's personality, and what it means for her own brief future.

World of Opera host Lisa Simeone presents this surprising double bill from the Washington National Opera, where both productions were directed by William Friedkin — famous for the notoriously spooky movie The Exorcist. And there's an all-star cast, to boot. Samuel Ramey takes the title role in both operas, with Denyce Graves as Bluebeard's bride, Judith. Also, Lisa talks to Placido Domingo, the WNO's general director, about what makes this odd couple of operas so unexpectedly satisfying.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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