Wednesday, 5 June 2013

'Cav and Pag' restored

'Cav and Pag', the combination of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci used to be a relatively common sight, a powerful evening of verismo opera. But opera companies nowadays seem to rather fight shy of the pairing, perhaps finding the combination of stylised passion and local colour a rather difficult mix. Certainly the two operas are not equal in the strength of their invention and Mascagni's opera can seem to have rather to much instrumental back-drop to local colour and be rather low on plot. Pagliacci by contrast is almost more worthy of the epithet 'shabby little shocker'. The two operas need careful handling and need to be taken completely seriously. Both work best if left in their original Southern Italian environment. Both are more visceral than sophisticated, what 'Cav and Pag' offers is an evening of unashamed blood and thunder with some rattlingly good tunes.

For their new production, Opera Holland Park mounted the pairing with all seriousness. Stephen Barlow's production (designed by Yannis Thavoris) kept the Sicilian setting but moved Cavalleria Rusticana to the 50's and Pagliacci to the 60's. A strong cast featured Peter Auty singing both tenor roles, Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana and Canio in Pagliacci with Stephen Gadd singing both baritone roles, Alfio and Tonio, with Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Santuzza and Julia Sporsen as Nedda. Conducted by Stuart Stratford with the City of London Sinfonia in the pit.


Stratford clearly loves the music and he brought out the magnificent sweep of Mascagni's orchestral music. This is music which needs love and commitment to blossom, and it got that here. Barlow's production opened with something of a coup. Thavoris's set consisted of a wall of wooden boxes, orange boxes from Sicily. This opened to reveal Turiddu (Peter Auty) and Lola (Hanna Pedley) in bed, and it was from here that  Auty sang his serenade.

But this novelty over, what became more apparent was the set's intractability. As Gweneth-Ann Jeffers' Santuzza wandered about looking both anxious and frumpy (Thavoris seems to have had a great time sourcing suitable frumpy frocks for all the women), she had no village to engage with. Mascagni's opera sets the plot against the rhythms of village life, albeit in a highly stylised way; here there was no village, and no church (the villagers exited stage-left each time they went to church), and Mama Lucia's osteria was just a few chairs. But against this, Barlow had his villagers doing realistic, everyday tasks so that the opening chorus involved the men and women in the job of collecting and packing the oranges. The result, rather than looking natural, ended up being rather artfully contrived especially as the hard-working young singers of the Opera Holland Park Chorus did not quite convince as Sicilian peasants. Though if you took the production on its own terms, their performance was lively and highly engaging, with a lot of nice detailing.

Jeffers had one or two moments when her voice seemed to threaten instability, but she made a passionate and intense Santuzza. Genuine in her passion but not necessarily likeable, bringing big, thrilling tones to her main aria. One of the problems with the opera is that neither of the two leads is completely likeable. Jeffers brought out the rather annoyingly intense quality which Santuzza has.

The object of her attentions, Turiddu, was played by Auty as a rather sad, self-indulgent bloke, who seems to have resorted to drink to cope with the problems he's brought on himself. There was no sign of military bearing, despite him wearing a uniform. More importantly, there wasn't enough of the nasty edge which Turiddu must have, he isn't really a very nice bloke. Auty sang the role with passionate brilliance, but you didn't quite believe he hated Santuzza that much. Turiddu and Santuzza need to create sparks from their relationship, and Auty and Jeffers didn't quite manage to do that, they seemed just a little too comfortable.

Stephen Gadd was a rather spiv-like Alfio, his cart replaced by a rather delightfully down at heel pick-up. Gadd sang his opening aria with casual brilliance, here was a bloke who was easily liked but who you wouldn't want to gross. There was a stiff dignity too, which came out as the plot progressed. The scene in which Santuzza tells Alfio about Turiddu's affair with Alfio's wife Lola was spine-tingling in its intensity, an example of what some of the other interactions in the opera missed.

Lola is actually a relatively small role, but Hannah Pedley brought a nicely contained intensity to it, she certainly wasn't the flouncy trollope of some interpretations. Sarah Pring was a very Italian Mama Lucia, disapproving but intensely loving.

In one significant alteration to the stage directions, Barlow had part two open not with Turiddu inviting villagers for a drink because he is so happy at being back with Lola, but with Turiddu getting drunk on his own with the villagers watching grimly. This removed the element of ironic contrast to the end of the piece, and instead made Turiddu's fate seem part of a continuous arc.  It also left the drinking scene feeling curiously awkward.

The chorus were in superb voice and moments like the Easter Hymn were rightly amongst the highlights. (There were odd moments of ensemble problems with the pit which I'm sure are only teething problems.) For the Easter Hymn, Barlow had two of the villagers enact the Virgin Mary's joy at meeting the risen Christ. This might have seemed invention for the sake of finding something to do on stage, but did actually show a nice appreciation for the strong element of kitsch running through that sort of village Roman Catholicism.

Chatting at the interval, a number of people who were unfamiliar with the operas tended to wonder what all the fuss was about, and part of me agreed with them. Overall this production of Cavalleria rusticana was a thing of parts, many of them beautiful, but which did not quite add up to a completely thrilling dramatic presentation.

One of the things that concerns directors is quite how 'Cav and Pag' should be linked in their presentation. Richard Jones at ENO in 2008 chose to go the opposite route and treat the two operas entirely differently, whereas Ian Judge in his earlier production at ENO set both in the same village with characters appearing in both. Barlow and Thavoris chose to link them in a rather neat, and striking way, leaving each independent but interrelated without too much contrivance.

For the opening of Pagliacci we were confronted with another wall of boxes, not wood this time but blue plastic. After the opening prelude, the wall opened to reveal the closing tableau of the previous opera with Stephen Gadd (Alfio/Tonio) standing over the prone Peter Auty (Turiddu/Canio). Then, in another striking coup, Gadd stepped forward out of character and delivered the prologue. A piece of brilliantly engaging stagecraft which was enhanced by Gadd's vivid delivery of the prologue as he changed clothes from Alfio's smart 1950's pin-stripe suit to Tonio's vividly coloured 1960's garb.

Gadd has been singing the role of Tonio at the Finnish National Opera and, though his voice might not be completely Italianate, his delivery was so beautifully sung, vividly characterised and engaging that the result was nicely dramatic. Gadd seemed to be stepping out of the character of Alfio to address us personally, but of course he was in fact morphing from one character to another.

Once the blue wall had closed, that was it. It opened once more to allow the travelling players' van to appear and then the remainder of the opera was played out against a huge blue wall of boxes. We were given just enough clues to apprehend that we were in the same village as before, only time had elapsed. In front of the blue wall we were presented with a vividly coloured drama, with the colourful costumes indicating that we were now in the 1960's.

The sad clown Canio seemed a far better fit for Auty. Just as passionately sung as his Turiddu, as Canio Auty elicited our sympathy and nicely brought out the contrast implicit in the role between public and private. He gave a superb account of Vesti la giubba ('On with the motley') and was disturbed rather than completely pathological in the final scene. But the ending was shocking nonetheless.

Barlow and Thavoris had another trick up their sleeves. The play that Canio, Nedda and Beppe enact for the village is in fact a comic version of Cavalleria Rusticana complete with love-making on the same bed but now with Peter Auty (Canio) playing Alfio, Julia Sporsen (Nedda) playing Lola and Beppe (Andrew Glover) playing Turiddu.

Confused? Don't worry, the comparison wasn't laboured but it was a neat device for linking the two operas and the bedroom farce made a nice complement to Auty's projection of Canio's real jealousy.

Julia Sporsen was a delight as Nedda. Sporting a curly red wig she was the epitome of 60's wild child, keen to escape the confines of her existence in the tiny players' van.

The drama was stoked by Tonio, played by Gadd in truly malevolent form. Brilliantly unlikeable and quite happy to stand at an ironic distance and watch the drama unfold. His final La Commedia è finita! (reverting to the composer's original allocation of the line to Tonio rather than the more traditional one to Canio)  was snapped out with a combination of disdain and relish.

Andrew Glover played Beppe, the other travelling player, as an ineffectual young man who had a nice turn for the comic and Glover contributed a beautifully lyric serenade, accompanying himself on a toy guitar which served to provide a prop for a variety of remarkably lewd gestures.

Chang-Han Lim was Nedda's love interest, Silvio, and his scene with Sporsen generated some real passion.

The chorus don't have quite as much to do here, but they were equally vivid and there were some finely telling details in their performances when watching the play change from comedy to tragedy.

Stratford conducted with the same sweep and flair that he showed in the first half. The orchestra, now rather bundled up against the cool wind, generated a nice southern warmth in their playing.

Barlow's production of 'Cav and Pag' made a rewarding whole, thanks to the strengths of the performances elicited from all the principals notably Auty and Gadd's remarkable double double act. Barlow and Thavoris did not belabour their concern to link the two stories and the results were surprisingly satisfying.

Opera Holland Park does not have the resources to put productions into storage and so revivals are relatively rare. But then so are performances of 'Cav and Pag' so I do hope that we will see them again soon in Holland Park.

And yes, the sun did shine!

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