Opera Holland Park’s 2013 season opens in suitably spirited style with the perennial pairing of operas by Mascagni and Leoncavallo. The settings are updated from the late nineteenth century to 1944 in the case of Cavalleria rusticana and 1974 for Pagliacci, and in this thirty-year gap lies the cleverness of the evening’s concept.
Given the date, Turiddu in Cavalleria has presumably returned home having suffered the ignominy of defeat in the Second World War. If, as it seems, his affair with Lola results from unsoundness of mind, we have the perfect reason for why he might be in such a state. Conversely, Alfio is shown as a carter who, whether a black market racketeer or member of the mafia, seems to have profited well enough from the war.
Vast swathes of Cavalleria do not so much feature action as arguments over events that have unfolded. Stephen Barlow’s production emphasises the repressive nature of village life where any ‘scandal’ is known about and judged by the entire community. For example, it is the villagers’ shunning of Turridu as they exit church on Easter Sunday that compounds his madness so that by the time he sings ‘Viva, il vino spumeggiante’ it is not only the alcohol sending him spinning around like a tormented soul.
Visual interest is, in fact, striven for at every turn. The Overture sees Turridu and Lola in bed together beneath pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and her own wedding to Alfio, while in the Intermezzo Alfio cries over the same photograph. Elsewhere, there are many telling touches such as Santuzza’s occasional clutching of her belly, suggesting that she is pregnant.
Yannis Thavoris’ set consists of two high walls of wooden crates, one in front of the other. When the first of these peels back it reveals a house interior, except at the end when it exposes the dead body of Turridu. This also lies on stage at the start of Pagliacci and emphasises the thematic connections between the two works. Both are about the discovery and consequences of infidelity, and yet they also reveal how the secret lover fills a void in the person’s life.
This opening image also hands the entire opera a sense of apocalyptic descent, as we remain acutely aware that we are about to witness a repeat performance. The fact that both Turridu and Canio, the murderer in Pagliacci, are played by Peter Auty may suggest that the former is wreaking revenge for his own fate a generation earlier. A similar suggestion can be gleaned from Stephen Gadd doubling as Alfio and Tonio.
Further parallels are achieved by seeing the wooden crates replaced by blue plastic ones, while the bright seventies costumes cleverly appear alongside a sign advertising the play as a ‘Commedia rusticana’. The ending also proves particularly powerful. The slitting of Silvio’s throat, which sends blood spurting into the air, mirrors Turridu’s particularly vicious bite of Alfio’s ear in Cavalleria. This, however, is followed by an emotive moment in which Canio tosses Silvio’s body aside so that he can tenderly clutch the corpse of Nedda.
The cast includes an excellent Gweneth-Anne Jeffers as Santuzza and a vibrant sounding Julia Sporsén as Nedda. The outstanding performances come from Stephen Gadd, who proves a secure and engaging singer as Alfio and Tonio, and Peter Auty who subtly adjusts his sound to suit the differing roles of Turridu and Canio. As the former his tone is light, yet rounded and forceful, while as the latter there is a slightly grittier tinge to the voice that perhaps signifies world-weariness. In the pit Stuart Stratford extracts a balanced yet sumptuous sound from the City of London Sinfonia, and if the orchestra continues in the same form for the rest of the season, 2013 should be a truly memorable year at Opera Holland Park.
For details of all the productions in Opera Holland Park’s 2013 season click here.