Sunday, 22 October 2017

Opera North's Little Greats: Cav & Pag

Opera North’s production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Autumn 2017 Katie Bray as Lola, Phillip Rhodes as Alfio and Giselle Allen as Santuzza with the Chorus of Opera North (Photo Robert Workman)
Opera North’s production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Autumn 2017 Katie Bray as Lola, Phillip Rhodes as Alfio and Giselle Allen as Santuzza with the Chorus of Opera North (Photo Robert Workman)
Leoncavallo Pagliacci, Mascagni Cavalleria Rusticana; Richard Burkhard, Peter Auty, Elin Pritchard, Jonathan Stoughton, Giselle Allen, Rosalind Plowright, Phillip Rhodes, Katie Bray, dir: Charles Edwards & Karoline Sofulak, cond; Tobias Ringborg; Opera North at the Grand Theatre, Leeds
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 21 2017 Star rating: 4.5
The classic verismo pairing, in two strikingly updated settings

Opera North’s production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Autumn 2017 Richard Burkhard as Tonio, Peter Auty as Canio, Elin Pritchard as Nedda and members of the Chorus of Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Peter Auty as Canio, Elin Pritchard as Nedda
and members of the Chorus of Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
For the final double bill of Opera North's The Little Greats season at the Grand Theatre, Leeds we caught Cav & Pag or rather Pag & Cav, Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana on Saturday 21 October 2017.

Leoncavallo's Pagliacci was directed and designed by Charles Edwards, conducted by Tobias Ringborg, with Richard Burkhard as Tonio, Peter Auty as Canio, Joseph Shovelton as Peppe, Elin Pritchard as Nedda, Phillip Rhodes as Silvio.

Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana was directed by Karolina Sofulak with set designs by Charles Edwards and costumes by Gabrielle Dalton, conducted by Tobias Ringborg, with Jonathan Stoughton as Turiddu, Giselle Allen as Santuzza, Rosalind Plowright as Mamma Lucia, Phillip Rhodes as Alfio and Katie Bray as Lola.

Charles Edwards had designed the sets for all six operas and here he directed Pagliacci and he drew remarkably powerful performances from his cast, and the climax was truly shattering. The problem, for me, was that Edwards had chosen not only to update the opera to the present, but to set it in a rehearsal studio. Pagliacci is one of those operas which rather resists contemporary stagings (Damiano Michieletto's 1980s Sicily at Covent Garden is the closest you get).


Opera North’s production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Autumn 2017 Giselle Allen as Santuzza and Jonathan Stoughton at Turridù  (Photo Robert Workman)
Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Giselle Allen as Santuzza,
Jonathan Stoughton at Turridù  (Photo Robert Workman)
Here, the rehearsal studio setting meant that the chorus parts for the villagers in the opening scene was sung in inverted commas, the stage chorus rehearsing their parts. Richard Burkhard's Tonio was here the designer not a participant in the stage company. Which meant that the action of the closing scenes grew progressively distant from the dramaturgy of the original. This disturbed me profoundly but seemed not to bother the audience, rightly blown away by the terrific performances.

Peter Auty was quite a human Canio, jealous and obsessive rather than a monster. Auty's voice, richly Italianate and open, delivering an intense account of 'Vesti la giubba' (it is such a shame that current usage means we cannot use the translation 'on with the motley' any more, 'on with the costume' as far less power). Elin Pritchard's Nedda was a richly sung and complex creation. I loved he warmth and amplitude of Pritchard's voice, and her long duet with Phillip Rhodes' Silvio was one of the highlights of a musically strong evening.

Richard Burkhard, who delivered the prologue and final words in English (the rest being sung in Italian) made a strong Alfio, stepping neatly through the fourth wall to give us a powerful prologue, and proving both controlled and disturbing in the closing scenes. Joseph Shovelton sang the small role of Peppe, with a mellifluous account of his serenade.

With Cavalleria Rusticana, Karolina Sofulak also transposed the action to 1980s Poland. D. wondered, perhaps the reason might be that the tiny Polski Fiat 126 was the only car which would fit on the stage! In fact, Sofulak argued in a cogent article in the programme that 1980s Poland had much in common with 1890s Sicily, most importantly tight knight communities, intense religion and a sense of honour. The three things that the plot of Cavalleria Rusticana needs for the mechanism to work.

Perhaps, most importantly, the new setting gave us a believable milieu which enabled Sofulak to concentrate on the intense personal relationships without the local colour and the overdone emotionalism of stage Sicily.

Opera North’s production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Autumn 2017 Rosalind Plowright as Lucia and Giselle Allen as Santuzza (Photo Robert Workman)
Rosalind Plowright as Lucia, Giselle Allen
as Santuzza (Photo Robert Workman)
Charles Edwards' setting was plain and abstract, a door for Alfio and Lola's house, a cross for the church and a counter for Mamma Lucia's shop. The staging was similarly abstract, with multiple things happening on stage simultaneously, characters being unaware of each other. So that, thrillingly, Santuzza and Turiddu's final crucial duet took place with Giselle Allen's Santuzza in front of the cross and Turiddu (Jonathan Stoughton) making love to Lola (Katie Bray), Lola's song became part of their love making.

Not all the iconography worked, Turiddu as Christ was a particularly strange image.

But Sofulak made us concentrate on the relationships and the cross currents. Giselle Allen was simply thrilling as Santuzza, one of the best I have heard. She sang with wonderful amplitude of tone, combining the requisite power with a lovely sweep to the line, and a lack of the bumpiness which dramatic sopranos can bring to the part. The Easter hymn was not quite ideally focused, but many of her solos were finely done. And whilst capturing the character's sadness she had a sense of independence too so that this Santuzza was not whiny.

As Turiddu Jonathan Stoughton brought a lithe, bright tone. As with many tenor roles, Stoughton never quite convinced us that Turiddu was in an way intelligent. He wasn't nasty, simply too dim to realise he could not take what he wanted. Phillip Rhodes was a fine Alfio, not a vicious scenery biter, but a man made intensely bitter by his experience, and his 'carters song' to the joys of a taxi driver was delightful. Though having so much of the crucial action, including Alfio's shooting of Turiddu, happen inside the Polski Fiat car seemed rather eccentric.

Katie Bray's Lola was very non-traditional, certainly not the blowsy, buxom sex kitten, more someone caught up in a complex web of relationships. But Katie Bray's dark mezzo-soprano imbued her song with much fervour too. With her tight perm, Rosalind Plowright seemed to be channelling one of the Coronation Street matriarchs, particularly in the way she relished telling people that food had run out at the shop. She was ever watchful, missing little and Plowright was on stage for much of the closing scenes long after her final significant contribution to the musical score.

I enjoyed this production of Cavalleria Rusticana far more than I expected and it made me think about what does and does not work when operas are transposed. Cav & Page are a tricky couple, complex mechanisms that require careful handling. Sofulak showed that you have to start from the story, using a setting which enables you to tell the story in the way you want.

Opera North’s production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Autumn 2017 Peter Auty as Canio and Elin Pritchard as Nedda (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Opera North’s production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Autumn 2017 Peter Auty as Canio and Elin Pritchard as Nedda
(Photo Tristram Kenton)
Tobias Ringbord and the Opera North Orchestra were on good form, delivering finely lithe and passionate accounts of the scores. Both operas include notable orchestral moments, all finely done.

We really enjoyed our Six Little Greats. The highlight remains Annabel Arden's production of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges but each opera had its moment and the selection was excellently done, each complementing the other.

Opera North The Little Greats season, my reviews:
Elsewhere on this blog:

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