There may be something catching in the air, but like a number of other venues in 2012 such as Glyndebourne and Holland Park, Stanley Hall Opera opted in its twelfth season for a double bill of one-acters: Mozart’s relatively rarely performed Der Schauspieldirektor, rendered here and sung in English in an excellent translation by David Parry as The Impresario, followed by Leoncavallo’s verismo warhorse Pagliacci. Why link these two? Well, director Natascha Metherell made a reasonable case in her programme notes for the concept – in this case the idea of the ‘backstage world’ influencing the ‘onstage world’. In Pagliacci this is of course explicit, as real life jealousy among the principals takes over the ‘comedy’ that is being played onstage, and tragedy ensues. She thus makes of Mozart’s 1786 occasional piece a scene-setting prologue, with a straightforward narrative. Frank Bold’s touring opera company faces a crisis. A theatrical angel (a banker, who else?) emerges from the auditorium, offers to bankroll Frank’s forthcoming production of Pagliacci as long as his girlfriend can sing the role of Nedda. The girlfriend proves that she can sing (to the fury of the company’s resident diva) but the angel’s attention is grabbed by a female stagehand (a Cinderella in waiting) and he insists that she be given the Nedda role. Money talks, and the stage is set for her debut in Pagliacci. Interval.
When he wrote Der Schauspieldirektor, thirty year oldMozart was within three months of producing Le nozze di Figaro. The musical inspiration is thus of a high order and the double bill got off to a sparkling start, with a presto overture full of grace, colour and accomplished, disciplined playing under the baton of John Andrews. And what a delightful overture it is: full of spirited string writing, delightful brief modulations into minor keys, bubbling woodwind and an overall sense of joie de vivre that tells us that a little treat is in store. The piece however is not without its dangers: in a construct lasting just under an hour, no more than about twenty-five minutes are devoted to the music: the rest is dialogue. But this is precisely where Parry’s adaptation and Metherell’s approach scored: the cast gave us a playlet, with acting to match, of a high order. There was a good sense of attack, cues were picked up promptly, nothing sagged and the various characterisations emerged clearly. As Madame Herz (here transposed into Josephine Hart), Katherine Blumenthal proved delightfully ditzy – a real diva with coloratura, but not much mental, firepower. As the harassed impresario, Christopher Staines held the whole piece together – his interplay with his assistant Buff (Buffield Mannering) played by Simon Thorpe, and with Eiler (Barry Swift) played by Joe Morgan, was slick, deft and very effective. And in a witty modern adaptation, the wit and sheer skill of Mozart’s musical invention came across all the more strongly.
Stanley Hall cast a strong ensemble of singers, nicely matched, for the production. Mozart’s eventual moral may be all about teamwork, and every artist trying simply to do his or her best, but along the way this Impresario gave us a delicious battle between two divas (as per the original), their voices contrasting nicely. If Blumenthal had focus and attack, and lovely evenness of tone in the bravura coda that ends her first aria, her rival Mademoiselle Silberklang (here Sylvia Singer, played by Catrine Kirkman) had a softer, slightly grainier tone, as befits the coloratura soprano whom Mozart restricts to top notes that are always a third lower than her rival! And then the two are joined by the tenor, for a little gem of a trio, in which each lady tries to assert her primacy: this time Sylvia Singer does make it up to a high D but Josephine Hart trumps her with a high F. Stuart Haycock sang well within himself as James Bird, the camp tenor trying to keep the peace, and acted engagingly throughout – always fun and interesting to watch.
This version of The Impresario also gave us a bonus number: before we reached the final quartet, Mary Nelson as the stagehand Nancy Goodly had to be introduced to the banker angel, the impresario and the audience alike. So to show off her singing abilities she announced that she would sing “Susanna’s aria, of course”. And the orchestra launched into Deh vieni, non tardar – that happy/sad andante in Act Four of Figaro that cuts through all the bustle and merriment in the garden and sings of a girl’s soul. Nelson sang it practically from cold and acquitted herself moderately well – of course, she had neither the context nor the atmosphere to make the aria really telling, and sensibly she took it mezzoforte throughout, concentrating on a simple, pure melodic line. But this insertion jarred slightly: and pointed up the difference in the musical genius of Figaro and Der Schauspieldirektor respectively. No matter – in January 1786 Mozart may well have had the melodic outlines of his Figaro arias in mind (he interrupted work on Figaro to compose his little Singspiel), so a degree of creative interpolation is allowed!
This performance of The Impresario, however freely adapted it may have been, was above all else stylish and fun entertainment. It absolutely played to the Stanley Hall ethos of giving airings to works that lie just outside the standard repertoire, and it did Mozart proud.
Pagliacci was performed on the same set, augmented with curtains, flags and drapes, its commedia dell’arte elements always present and visible. This time the genial Buffield (Simon Thorpe) of The Impresario becomes the dark and brooding Tonio, and the innocent and overlooked stagehand Nancy (Mary Nelson) becomes the femme fatale Nedda. Thorpe sang the Prologue highly convincingly, building the tension, producing warm tone and a big sound. Nelson, I felt, was a shade colourless as Nedda: the voice is creamy and tone production even, but she was a little too controlled and not quite wild and wanton enough – the part can take it, after all! For my money, the vocal honours in this Pagliacci went to James Cleverton as Silvio. He looked the part, he moved well and his baritone sound was classy enough for any company – this was a very strong performance. His love duet with Nedda was for me the musical highlight of the show. Paul Hopwood provided classy tenor sound and strong support as Canio, however, and brought about the fatal denouement convincingly.
The sound world of Leoncavallo is of course light years away from Mozart and the sound made by a small orchestra in a reduction, however skilfully it is done, is bound to be different from ‘the real thing’. So inevitably one missed the colour palette that verismo works of the late nineteenth century provide – specifically the sheer lushness of tone that a full sized orchestra can achieve. That said, the eighteen strong Stanley Hall orchestra played their socks off, excelling in the big melodramatic moments with clean articulation, some great brass and woodwind playing, and a sense of forward momentum that was entirely apt for the piece. And when ‘the comedy was finished’ one really felt that it was.
In the cold light of day, it was perhaps a bridge slightly too far to bring Mozart and Leoncavallo together in one programme, however ingeniously one tries to make intellectual and narrative links between the pieces. For they just – ultimately – do not go that well together: the style, wit and panache of Mozart is light years away from the gaudy, impassioned melodramatic style of Leoncavallo. And getting to know the actor singers who will perform Pagliacci through the medium of Mozart’s Singspiel does not really take us that far. But nevertheless – and particularly in the Mozart – there was huge musical pleasure and stylish fun to be had. Stanley Hall can be proud of this at least.