The New York City Opera has always balanced the danger of novelty with the comfort of familiarity. On Friday, the company offered a new look at Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. It may not last long.

Gerard Mortier, the firebrand who takes over in 2009, declared recently that he “hates verismo”. For his debut season he plans only modern works. Goodbye Puccini, Mascagni and Leoncavallo. Hello Messiaen, John Adams and Philip Glass. It will be interesting to see how conservative New Yorkers respond.

The City Opera has always avoided comparison with the Met, and the stark Cav and Pag staged by Stephen Lawless (borrowed from Dallas) hardly resembles the lavish Zeffirelli version next door. Invoking gritty cinematic images of Visconti and Fellini, Lawless and his designer, Ashley Martin-Davis, have updated both operas to postwar Italy. Fussing with freeze-frames, sudden scene-changes and quasi-close-ups, they play Cavalleria in a seedy square that accommodates a petrol station but no church. The teamster Alfio rides a motorised cart instead of the horse he describes (the titles substitute wheels for hoofs). The turbulent model for Santuzza could be Clara Calimai or Anna Magnani. Matters improve in Pagliacci, which has the strolling players arrive in a pink caravan and enact their tragedy in a circus arena. Canio could be Anthony Quinn in La Strada. Nedda resembles a lusty Giulietta Masina.

Despite the enlightened leadership of George Manahan, musical values fluctuated. Cavalleria seemed rough and unready. Anna Maria Chiuri fused theatrical intensity with a sometimes strained mezzo-soprano as Santuzza. Brandon Jovanovich exerted unremitting force as Turiddu. Rebecca Ringle sang sweetly as a gum-chewing Lola who returned fleetingly in the Pagliacci mob (ah, continuity). Pagliacci began with Andrew Oakden, the erstwhile Alfio, capping Tonio’s prologue with a spectacular A-flat. Carl Tanner emerged imposingly beefy and burly as Canio. Maria Kanyova juggled pathos and vulgarity, stridency and finesse, as Nedda. Michael Todd Simpson out-shouted her as a Silvio who modelled the same uniform and undershirt previously issued to Turiddu. All vocal judgments were compromised, of course, by the house microphones.

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