Monday 31 July 2023

Rising to the challenge: a pair of world-class tenors as Turiddu and Canio anchor fine performances of Cav and Pag at West Green

Leoncavallo: Pagliacci - Ronald Samm, Jenny Stafford - West Green House Opera (Photo: John Reading)
Leoncavallo: Pagliacci - Ronald Samm, Jenny Stafford - West Green House Opera (Photo: John Reading)

Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana, Leoncavallo; Pagliacci;  Alexey Dolgov, Samantha Crawford, Sarah Pring, George von Bergen, Angharad Lyddon, Ronald Samm, Jenny Stafford, Grant Doyle, Lawrence Thackeray, Thomas Chenhall, director: John Ramster, conductor: John Andrews; West Green House Opera

Strong performances and imaginative productions lift the classic double bill on an evening dampened by the weather

Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci are not, at first sight, natural bedfellows. Both provide intense emotion and over-the-top drama in the Italian countryside. Perhaps a little too close to each other in style, in fact the differences between them are sufficient to make a satisfying and substantial double bill, something that audiences have been enjoying since the Met in New York first paired them in 1893. Other pairings have been tried, but nothing really sticks. Cav and Pag it is.

For their main opera presentation this year, West Green House's Opera Season presented Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. We caught the second performance, on Sunday 30 July 2023. The production was directed by John Ramster and designed by Bridget Kimak, with lighting by Sarah Bath and sound design by Gary Dixon. John Andrews conducted, with Alexey Dolgov as Turiddu, Samantha Crawford as Santuzza, Sarah Pring as Mamma Lucia, George von Bergen as Alfio and Angharad Lyddon as Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana, and Ronald Samm as Canio, Jenny Stafford as Nedda, Grant Doyle as Tonio, Lawrence Thackeray as Beppe and Thomas Chenhall as Silvio in Pagliacci.

For all the double-bill's popularity, it is a significant undertaking for a small opera company, requiring two sets of principals (or a single set willing and able to undertake the double challenge). With the general dearth of good Italian dramatic voices in general, this means that casting is made even more of a challenge and it is to West Green House Opera's credit that they fielded two such strong casts, with principals well able to do just to their roles, in particular the two leading tenors, Alexey Dolgov as Turiddu and Ronald Samm as Canio, gave performances that any opera house worth its salt would have been proud of.

John Ramster's production, in Bridget Kimak's expressive yet simple designs, set both operas in the same Sicilian village in 1946. Now, evoking the heat and passion of Sicily on a British stage is tricky at the best of times, but when doing it out of doors, things are harder. West Green uses a lovely arrangement whereby the stage is placed on the island in the lake and the audience is in a pavilion at the lakeside. Everyone is covered, but there is no denying the impact of the weather. On Sunday, things were gloomy but dry for Cavalleria Rusticana, but the heavens opened during Pagliacci and it is to the performers' credit that none of this mattered, the stage action remained firmly passionate and intense.

Alexey Dolgov (who sang Chekalinsky in the Grange Festival's recent Queen of Spades) made a strong Turiddu. Young and personable, this was a Turiddu with a great confidence in his own abilities, and the way Dolgov sweet-talked both of the women in his life, Lola (Angharad Lyddon) and Santuzza (Samantha Crawford), was wonderfully effective. This Turiddu wasn't at all nasty, just thoughtless and selfish, and with a manner which threatened to draw us in. Dolgov has a powerful, quite incisive voice, not the most Italianate of instruments. He had something of a tendency to sing at the same volume, and would have like a bit more light and shade, yet he had the power to sing Turiddu without tiring, giving a wonderfully consistent, strong and undoubtedly thrilling performance.

Samantha Crawford made a young and personable Santuzza. Crawford has started singing the jugend-dramatisch Wagner roles, but her voice still felt lithe and light, suiting the youth of the character. There were a few moments when she seemed to be pushing the top a little too much, which made you worry, but overall this was an engaging and sympathetic performance. Santuzza might be hard done by, but her response in the opera is to trigger the drama which leads to Turiddu's death. Here, Crawford made Santuzza youthfully impulsive and her narration to Sarah Pring's Mamma Lucia explaining the situation was wonderfully expressive.

Lola is a relatively small role, but Angharad Lyddon brought out her sexual quality, the way she seemed always on the prowl, along with the way she played the two men in her life, Turiddu (Dolgov) and her husband, Alfio (George von Bergen). George von Bergen was a robust Alfio, somewhat rough of tone at times, this seemed to fit in with Alfio's rather rough and ready character, and von Bergen made him easy to rile.

Mamma Lucia is a small role, but she is present for a lot of the action and a good Mamma Lucia can make a strong difference to the drama. With her wonderfully expressive face, Sarah Pring made sure you knew what Mamma Lucia was thinking at every moment. This was a strongly dramatic and fully engaged performance, so that Pring made Mamma Lucia a lynch-pin of the drama.

The sixteen-strong chorus provided a lot of the backdrop for the drama. With a relatively simple set, the background came from the lively and detailed chorus action, and I really enjoyed Ramster's eye for detail here. They sang with gusto and were fully engaged throughout the drama, creating characters in their own right. For the Easter Hymn, Ramster solved the logistics of the procession moving from off-stage to on, by having a separate off-stage chorus, sung by members of local choral societies - Basingstoke Choral Society, Hook Choral Society, Winchester Music Club and Waynflete Singers. The result was enormously effective, helped by a coup de theatre whereby a statue of the Virgin arrived by boat (!) and was then carried on-stage by four men from the chorus.

The orchestra numbered some 25 players, somewhat small for this opera but somewhat expensive, nonetheless, for a small company. They played strongly and effectively, and thanks to the sound design, gave fine support to the singers, and John Andrews drew expressive playing from them during the opera's many instrumental interludes, though occasionally we felt that lack of a glorious sweep of sound that a large string section brings.

Ramster's production had one slight oddity. At the beginning of the prelude, the stage was still set with Pagliacci's stage within a stage and as Samantha Crawford's Santuzza came on stage, Lawrence Thackeray's Beppe was still on stage, profoundly upset. As a linking mechanism between the two operas, this was effective enough, but made something of a distraction.

Rightly dominating Pagliacci was Ronald Samm's Canio. From the first, when he strode onto the stage during lively opening, where the villagers are anticipating the coming of the pagliacci, Samm's suave actor/manager was the engaging centre of attention. Yet, his digs at Jenny Stafford's Nedda were a warning of the storm to come. Samm's Canio was slow burn, his big voice taking on more and more intensity till he snapped during the play. Egged on by Grant Doyle's truly nasty Tonio, Samm stabbed both Stafford's Nedda and Thomas Chenhall's Silvio with a knife provided by Doyle's Tonio. This was more than a consummate performance, it was an all consuming one that threatened to overflow the stage. That it did not says a lot for the strength of the surrounding performances.

As I have said, Grant Doyle was a real piece of work as Tonio. He began, in modern dress as the prologue, engaging and toying with us as he described what the author hoped to achieve. Doyle is a consummate communicator, and if his voice is not the warmest Italian baritone that did not matter as here he was vividly talking to us. His Tonio was a nasty sneak, managing to make much of relatively small business and ensuring he had our attention.

Jenny Stafford was an engaging Nedda, giving a beautifully rendered account of her song to the birds, yet the scene with Thomas Chenhall's strong Silvio showed us that she too could be cavalier, prizing her own freedom above that of others. What Ramster's production showed was that everyone was fallible. And the way Stafford made Nedda realise, during the final play with a play, that Samm's Canio was no longer in character, was nicely realised.

Beppe is a bit of a thankless role, always there, always filling in yet never quite part of the action. Lawrence Thackeray did admirably, impressing with what he did and he was also covering the role of Turiddu, which gave us a hint of things to come. Thomas Chenhall was a strong Silvio, creating far more of an impression than often happens with this role, and really making his scene with Stafford's Nedda count.

The chorus is, perhaps, less important in this opera, providing backdrop at the beginning and end, yet again the chorus gave a strong musical and dramatic account of itself. Andrews and the orchestra provided the strong backdrop that the opera needs, whilst Andrews drew expressive playing during the intermezzo.

This was a pair of strong performances that rose above the difficulty of presenting the works themselves on a smaller scale and the dampening effect of the weather to provide engaging and dramatically involving double bill. In an evening of strong performances all round, it was Ronald Samm's coruscating performance as Canio that really anchored things.

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