Opera + Classical Music Features

Preview: Longborough Festival Opera’s Pagliacci

Sam Smith looks forward to the opportunity to reassess one half of ‘Cav and Pag’ on its own terms.


(Photo: Damaris Brown)

While some summer opera festivals managed to put on a few performances in July and August, others have taken a different approach, saving their alternative schedules for the winter months. In the case of Longborough Festival Opera, the only summer opera venue in the United Kingdom that puts Wagner at the centre of its operations, its revised programme comes in the form of two performances of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci on 19 and 20 December.

The opera is more commonly known as the second half of ‘Cav and Pag’ since it is almost always paired with Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana of 1890. It is not difficult to see why since they were only composed two years apart, together seem to provide a master class in verismo, and have enough thematic similarities, and potential overlap in voice parts, for synergies to be drawn. For example, the fact that both Turridu and Canio can be sung by the same person allows for the suggestion that the former is wreaking his revenge when playing the latter in the second opera. Nevertheless, there is no absolute reason why the two have to be paired, and one has to wonder, had the Metropolitan Opera not coupled them as early as 1893 (although performances of each with such heavy hitters as Il barbiere di Siviglia or Don Pasquale persisted for decades) whether the ‘marriage’ would ever have taken place at all.

For this reason, the performances at Longborough provide a welcome opportunity to reassess Pagliacci, not as one half of a double bill, but as an outstanding opera in its own right. They represent the debut production of Opera Ensemble, which was founded by Welsh soprano Elin Pritchard and director Christopher Luscombe, and are produced by Hamish Mackay. Luscombe has worked extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe Theatre, while his 2019 production of Falstaff at The Grange Festival was highly acclaimed. He would therefore seem the ideal director to bring out both the entertaining and the darker elements that are inherent in the piece. Peter Auty, who also played Canio for Opera Holland Park in 2013, leads the cast, which includes Elin Pritchard, Robert Hayward, Nicholas Lester and Aled Hall.

“The opera is more commonly known as the second half of ‘Cav and Pag’…”

Other operas performed recently have seen the need to observe social distancing lead to some quite innovative stagings. For example, in English National Opera’s drive-in La bohème at Alexandra Palace, the emphasis had to be placed on how inconsolable Rodolfo was at the end to explain why he disappeared among the sea of cars and thus stayed away from Mimì. Similarly, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s recent production of Donizetti’s Rita saw a hyperbolic, almost cartoonish, quality applied to the performance style so that what would normally be physical contact could take place at a distance. It will therefore be interesting to see the approach that this 50-minute chamber staging of the work, which is led from the piano by Berrak Dyer, takes to accommodating both the liaisons and stabbings.

The production marks Longborough’s first indoor performance since the coronavirus outbreak began, and follows the success of its fundraising campaign, which generated over £300,000 for freelance artists involved in the postponed 2020 festival and for future work. Artistic Director Polly Graham has said “I am delighted that we are able to open up our theatre this winter, and keep live opera happening through such a challenging time. It’s great to be able to work together with Opera Ensemble to present Leoncavallo’s fantastic Pagliacci – I am sure audiences will be swept away by the intensity of the music and the drama.”

Certainly, the production received excellent reviews when it premiered at St James’s Church, Islington in October, and it also has a visit planned to The Grange Festival in Hampshire on 13 December. As a result, it seems there is much to look forward to from Leoncavallo’s one-act gem in the run-up to Christmas.

Longborough’s performances of Pagliacci take place at 2.00pm on 19 and 20 December. For further details and to book tickets visit the Longborough Festival Opera website.

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