The opening night at OHP saw not only the sun shining, but entertaining accounts of Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria rusticana’ and Leoncavallo’s ‘Pagliacci’, affectionately known as ‘Cav and Pag’. Although not written together, the two short verismo (realist) operas are now pretty much inseparable, both written in the early 1890s and set among the jealous and superstitious common people of Sicily and southern Italy, whose rivalry and jealousy provide gripping finales of shocking violence– all set to remarkably catchy music. Consequently, director Stephen Barlow has cleverly linked the pair by referencing the end of the former at the beginning of the latter (as a nod to ‘Pagliacci’s theme of theatrical make-believe vs reality).
The evening begins with ‘Cavalleria’, set in 1944 Sicily. A wall of wooden packing crates parts to reveal on-leave soldier Tiriddu (tenor Peter Auty) in bed with his adulterous lover Lola (soprano Hannah Pedley). When his rejected girlfriend Santuzza finds out and tells Lola’s husband, Alfio (Stephen Gadd), it is never going to end happily. Gadd is terrific as the strong and menacing cuckold, his solid bass-baritone inflecting his dark intent. Auty takes a while to warm up, but by the end, he makes a good play at being drunk and shows great vulnerability as the foolish, small-town playboy – his plaintive farewell to his mother in her widow’s tweeds (played convincingly by Sarah Pring despite her tender years) touching. As Santuzza, Gwyneth-Ann Jeffers, while solid vocally, is rather over-wrought throughout – hamming-up that would be better employed had she stuck around for the play-within-a-play presented by the commedia del’arte clowns of ‘Pagliacci’.
In this second opera, affairs are updated to 1974 Calabria, the wall of crates now plastic blue ones. It is a much more convincing vehicle for Auty who, as troupe leader Canio in a pinstriped suit, warns the onlookers not to joke about his wife, Nedda’s infidelity. The lady in question is played like a true siren by soprano Julia Sporsén; her saucy antics with her not-so secret lover resulting in a grippingly deranged conclusion.
The youthful OHP Chorus were on great form, too, notably in the Easter Hymn of ‘Cav’ before nailing the dramatic dynamic shifts at the end of that piece; then as a transfixed audience unwittingly witnessing the real emotions of a crazed clown.
Stuart Stratford, conducting the City of London Sinfonia, coaxed much musical drama in a tight account of the scores, though both could have done with a little more Mediterranean sunshine.