Monday 14 December 2020

Pagliacci: A powerful stripped back staging of the Verismo classic reveals the work's integral strengths

Leoncavallo Pagliacci; Peter Auty, Elin Pritchard, Robert Hayward, Nicholas Lester, Aled Hall, dir: Christopher Luscombe, cond: John Andrews; The Grange Festival

Leoncavallo Pagliacci; Peter Auty, Elin Pritchard, Robert Hayward, Nicholas Lester, Aled Hall, dir: Christopher Luscombe, cond: John Andrews; The Grange Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 December 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Christopher Luscombe's stripped-back production returns with a guest spot at the Grange Festival, revealing that less can be more

Stripping an opera back to its essentials can have an interesting effect on the piece, particularly one that we know well. So the performance of Christopher Luscombe's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci at the Grange Festival on Sunday 13 December 2020 was both a welcome chance to catch a production which I missed when it was new and a way to experience Pagliacci anew. John Andrews conducted, with Peter Auty as Canio, Elin Pritchard as Nedda, Robert Hayward as Tonio, Aled Hall as Beppe and Nicholas Lester as Silvio, accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of Berrak Dyer (piano), Fenella Humphreys & Alexandra Lomeiko (violin), Lisa Bucknell (viola) and Sophie Gledhill (cello).

The production arose as an admirably crazy enterprise in an Islington church in October (see my article), and even transferred to the rather grander stage of The Grange, the staging retained its sense of being stripped back to essentials. There was fine lighting from Tim Mitchell, and a chorus of eight at the back, but our attention was focused on the five soloists, the clowns of the title. Leoncavallo's 1892 opera was a deliberate attempt to capitalise on the Verismo success of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana in 1890. Mascagni based his opera on a play by Giovanni Verga, a Sicilian writer who had created the genre of Italian realist writing (Verismo). Leoncavallo built on this by claiming Pagliacci was based on a real-life court case tried by his judge father, but modern scholarship has put this in doubt as the opera has significant parallels with a number of earlier French works which the young composer would have had ample chance to see in Paris during his six-year stay there.

Whatever the origins of the story, the resulting opera is a powerful examination of the intersection of life and art, as Canio's real-life jealousy breaks through the fourth wall during the clowns on-stage performance. Though, of course, the opera is no more realistic than, say Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.

Luscombe's stripped down production removed the element of verisimilitude which directors seem to usually add to Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana, and most productions of these operas that I have seen have been full of realistic detail whatever the director's chosen era for the setting. Here we had the chorus sitting at the back, the instrumental ensemble and conductor stage left and a proliferation of lights, with just a large chest in the middle of the stage. (This latter was explained by Luscombe's programme note in which he described the original performance without sets but with the altar of the church looming large).

Perhaps, initially some of the dramaturgy seemed a little hazy without a clear setting and with the requirement to keep the principals socially distanced. But Robert Hayward certainly gripped in his account of the prologue, sung in Bill Bankes-Jones' English translation (the remainder of the opera was sung in Italian). This was a very human performance, fallible and highly communicative. During the opera Hayward (whom we had seen the previous evening as Don Pizzaro in Opera North's live-stream of Beethoven's Fidelio, see my review) made a nasty, blustering Tonio yet able to slip wonderfully into character as Taddeo. 

Peter Auty's performance as Canio is one that I have been lucky enough to have caught before, and time has only intensified his performance. Beautifully sung yet deeply moving, he gave a superb account of the show-piece aria, 'Vesti la giubba' but this was enveloped in a finely thought through performance rather than standing out as a demonstration aria. Auty's Canio was slow-burn, initially serious you sensed the way that suspicion was eating at him so that he burst the fourth wall superbly, knocking the rather twee performance of the play with in a play for six. The lurches between staged realism and staged stagecraft were superb, all the more so for them being done with almost zero scenery and props.

In this Auty was aided by Elin Pritchard's fully rounded Nedda, gamely trying to keep the show going in the face of her lover's searing intensity. Earlier on Pritchard had given a fine account of Nedda's aria about the birds, successfully evoking her desire for freedom and escape which came with her agreement to escape with her lover, Silvio. The scene between the two was, inevitably, somewhat restrained but Nicholas Lester as Silvio and Pritchard managed to build the tension into the relationship. Lester made fine lover, ardent and highly personable. Aled Hall was a characterful Beppe, relishing the role of the lover in the play within a play, whilst outside this bringing an underlying sense of nastiness to the character.

The chorus made a sterling effort, though I rather missed the sense of community that a larger, mobile chorus brings to this work; this was perhaps the biggest loss in this stripped down version. John Andrews drew a fine account of the score from the piano quintet, and whilst this was inevitably less massive, less technicolour than the original, they showed that even in reduced form there is plenty to enjoy.

On a wet and windy December afternoon this performance was a bright spark in an otherwise rather depressed opera season this month. Luscombe, Andrews and the cast showed that, as with some of the Grimeborn Festival's recent chamber re-inventions of classics, that stripping an opera down to the basics really can reveal something more than its good bones. 

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Beethoven's Fidelio streamed from Opera North - opera review
  • Late Beethoven alongside Thomas Adès from the Solem Quartet at the latest of the imaginative concert series from Spotlight Chamber Concerts at St John's Waterloo - concert review
  • Flexibility is her mantra: I chat to soprano Claire Booth about her recent film of Francis Poulenc's opera La voix humaine - interview
  • Òrain Ghàidhlig Beethoven: on the trail of the Scottish Gaelic origins of Beethoven's folk-song arrangements  - TV programme review
  • Cinderella in Leeds: Pauline Viardot's chamber opera in a new film from Northern Opera Group - opera film review
  • Back to its origins: Grange Park Opera returns Britten's television opera, Owen Wingrave, to its film roots in this darkly comic modern version - opera review
  • Immersive and intense: Schubert's Swan Song from Roderick Williams and friends at Spotlight Chamber Concerts - concert review
  • In the depths of deep despair: James Cleverton and Nigel Foster premiere Iain Bell's song cycle based on Thom Gunn's collection The Man with Night Sweats - concert review
  • Making music in complex times: conductor Cornelius Meister on his recent concerts in Scotland, his work with the opera in Stuttgart and national differences in performing styles  - interview
  • Rediscovering Handel's keyboard music for a new generation: Pierre Hantaï's disc of the 1720 Suites de Pièces - CD review
  • Christmas CD roundup: carols ancient, modern and medieval, Christmas in Puebla,  a Georgian trilogy and much more - CD review
  • Home


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