Opera Holland Park opened its 2013 season with Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, presented as a traditional double-bill. Both are new productions for a company that in the past has proven itself as an innovative, stylish, and resourceful producer of operas that are more than mere summer fare. To be sure, there were strong reminders of these hallmarks in Stephen Barlow's direction and Yannis Thavoris's sets, but the production for both operas was little more than a simplistic presentation of deep and exotic passions couched in light metatheatrical musings.
The set for Cavalleria and Pagliacci consisted of stacked crates, some moveable to imply private or different spaces, which were wooden for the former and blue plastic for the latter. It became clear only at the start of Pagliacci--when, during Tonio's prologue, the audience was greeted with the final scene of Cavalleria--that these multipurpose environs were perhaps meant to signal the artificiality and hermeneutic plasticity inherent in all theatrical presentation; in other words, the set and placement of the same actors in the same costumes and positions surrounded by a similar set drew attention to the act of performing itself.
In a sense, this is an approach well suited to an opera about a commedia dell'arte performance because it emphasizes the characteristics historically associated with the giovane scuola: emotional intensity vivified through soaring melodies and the intense focus this music lends to the plight of the "everyday" characters. And whilst this approach works rather well for Pagliacci, it falls somewhat flat for Cavalleria, or at least shifts emphasis of meaning onto the former whilst reducing the latter to a pre-show presentation.
Unfortunately, some of the singing didn't do much to rescue Cavalleria from this subservient status. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers was a Santuzza searching for love and (curiously) pitch accuracy for most of the opera; she has a big voice with a shimmering edge, and, had she coupled her performance with a bit more flair for the text, would probably be forgiven for the intonation issues. Her rival Lola, sung and acted rather well by Hannah Pedley, was lyrically a breath of fresh air, while Sarah Pring was a one-dimensional if still effectively hysterical Mamma Lucia.
OHP regular Peter Auty brought verve and a tenacious bite to his performances as Turiddu and Canio--the latter which he enjoyed singing considerably more. His voice rises with that characteristic leverage typical of tenors in his fach and carries well almost always, except when the orchestra was at its loudest. Auty's chemistry with Julia Sporsén's Nedda was incredibly strong, perhaps owing to her musically layered portrayal of a trapped and confused woman. Sporsén continually surprises: her phrases are full of intricate dynamic and textual delights.
Stephen Gadd was an impeccable Tonio and equally good as Alfio. Besides his creative phrasing and sinister machinations, he deserves accolades for singing through the prologue without missing a beat even as a helicopter flew by overhead. On the lower side of the vocal spectrum, Chang-Han Lim was a passionate Silvio, bringing his lush and syrupy voice and sensibility for style to the role. Andrew Glover's Beppe was welcome comic relief, if somewhat tooenthusiastic.
The orchestra under the baton of Stuart Stratford was excellent; they played a heart-breaking intermezzo whilst evoking strong, exotic colors throughout. The ending of "Vesti la giubba" deserves special mention for the clever use of the bass' crescendo. The chorus was a perfectly (Italian) operatic one: there was very little blend between sections and from where I sat it sounded as though the tenors consistently came in slightly too early. First night nerves perhaps?
On the whole this production has some fine musical moments: Pagliacci is especially worth seeing. Dramatically, both fall somewhat short of innovative; still, OHP has a long season ahead of them.
Photos: Alistair Muir