[Editor’s note: Allan Glassman sang the part of Canio in Pagliacci and Malcolm MacKenzie sang Taddeo. The story has been corrected below.]

Opera Santa Barbara opened its 14th season, and its 2008 Italian Passions Festival, with the familiar pairing of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci on Saturday night at the Lobero Theatre.

These two, Cavalleria composed in 1890 and Pagliacci in 1892, have been joined at the hip almost from their first performances, so much so that they are known in the opera world as “Ham and Eggs.”

At the Lobero, the setting was moved to Italy circa 1947 from Italy in the 1890s, which worked for Cavalleria, but not for Pagliacci. I don’t see the advantage of trying to “modernize” such classic versions of 19th-century musical theater, but the anomaly somehow worked in the first opera.

The Santa Barbara company does a bang-up job with production values. The orchestra in the pit, conducted by Valery Ryvkin, was fine. The singers were truly first-rate.

In Cavalleria, tenor Allan Glassman sang the role of the feckless Turridu, home from war, courting the peasant girl, Santuzza, and at the same time having an affair with the married Lola. Mezzo soprano Layna Chianakas was full-voiced and ravaged as Santuzza, pregnant and nearly insane with jealousy. Croatian mezzo Tihana Herceg was insolently lyrical as the cheating wife.

The cuckolded husband, Alfio, was sung by baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, and Turridu’s long-suffering mother, Mamma Lucia, was portrayed by gifted contralto Victoria Hart. All these performers, directed by Linda Brovsky, breathed genuine fire into this tale of fierce emotion and bloody consequences.

While it is possible to imagine these characters and their emotions in mid-20th century Calabria, Pagliacci does not fare so well when moved from its period setting. For one thing, the idea of a traveling Commedia del’ Arte troupe wandering the countryside presenting actors playing Harlequin, Columbine and stylized pagliacci (“clowns”) fails to gel.

Nothing can be taken away from the singers, of course. Glassman was a touching Canio, the crippled clown who loves beautiful Nedda, sung by soprano Barbara Divis. Taddeo, Nedda’s jealous husband and head of the troupe of players, was convincing as sung by MacKenzie. Tenor Matthew Pena was a believable Beppe, the Harlequin. Silvio, the handsome villager who is having an affair with Nedda, was played by the dashing baritone Daniel Narducci. Once again, Linda Brodsky directed the performance.

Putting these characters in the 1940s exposes all the creaks in the antique plot, however. Harlequins and Columbines are problematical anyway. Trying to integrate them into a relatively contemporary setting simply doesn’t work.

The Italian Passions Festival will run through March 9. The Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci double bill will be repeated on Friday, Sunday and March 8. Performances of L’Elisir D’Amore, by Gaetano Donizetti, will also be performed, on Saturday and on March 7 and 8.

Click here for show times and information, or call 805.898-3890. To order tickets online, click here.