PAG edges out CAV in double-headed NBR NZ Opera thriller

NBR New Zealand Opera – CAV and PAG

MASCAGNI – Cavalleria Rusticana


Casts: (Cavalleria Rusticana) – Anna Shafajinskaya (Santuzza), Peter Auty (Turiddu), Marcin Bronikowski (Alfio), Anna Pierard (Lola), Wendy Doyle (Mamma Lucia)

(Pagliacci) – Rafael Rojas (Canio), Elizabeth Futral (Nedda), Warwick Fyfe (Tonio), Marcin Bronikowski (Silvio), Andrew Glover (Beppe)

The Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (Michael Vinten, chorusmaster)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Oliver von Dohnanyi (conductor)

Directed by Mike Ashman

St. James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 27th August, 2011

It was a points decision, and a close call, but most who attended the opening night of NBR New Zealand Opera’s double-header of CAV and PAG would, I think, have agreed that the latter (Pagliacci), boxing far above its weight on the night, landed too many telling counter-punches for the big guns of its glamorous rival (Cavalleria) – Intermezzo or no Intermezzo! Both operas gave their supporters plenty of thrilling moments, but PAG performed just a tad more consistently, with energetic and sustained focus throughout, both musically and dramatically.

To be fair, one perhaps ought to regard this particular presentation as a kind of fusion of the two operas by way of some well-placed connective tissue (I won’t spoil the surprise by undue description), though one does wonder how the tiny Sicilian community portrayed would in reality have coped with three violent murders in the course of a single day. The unities of time and place I thought suited Pagliacci better than it did Cavalleria, given that some compromises would have been made establishing commonalities between the stories. And I suspect Leoncavallo’s work responds more readily to updating than does Mascagni’s, with the latter’s depictions of old-fashioned religious observances strongly flavouring the story – though recent overseas productions of CAV seem to have hacked away at the Gordion Knot of the liturgical year by determinedly secularizing the settings. Director Mike Ashman didn’t go that far, but his Sicilian villagers seemed as well-versed in the use of cellphone technology as in the medieval pageantry of their Easter processionals.

In short the not-particularly-radical updatings therefore largely allowed both works to roar forth virtually unimpeded, which they did, thanks to singing and orchestral playing which gloriously filled the vistas of Wellington’s St James Theatre. Under the expert direction of conductor Oliver von Dohnanyi, the Vector Wellington Orchestra took to the music of both works with precision, energy and burning commitment, releasing all the overt passion in the instrumental writing, and occasionally and very properly overwhelming us with sounds. Mishaps and mis-hits amid the excitement were there few, the most noticeable being recalcitrant bells at one point! – but far more were there beautifully-turned solos and detailed and colourful episodes of ensemble work which did their bit in enhancing whatever aspects of the dramas they accompanied.

Sometimes in CAV the playing waxed eloquently to little theatrical avail – an expressively-turned passage for lower strings just before the “wronged” village girl Santuzza’s first entrance, so much deeper and darker than what had immediately gone before, seemed to fall on deaf ears stage-wise, when one would have thought it denoted some kind of dramatic action or response. Conversely, the famous mid-action orchestra-only Intermezzo was unnecessarily “choreographed” by Santuzza emoting hopes and dreams, in counterpoint to some equally gratuitous posing from a young man at the raised entrance to the church – both figures had, for me, a contrived presence, as the orchestral playing of the interlude perfectly expresses the moment’s peaceful “eye of the hurricane” without any additional illustration .

On-stage I thought the CAV chorus took a while to bring some purpose to what was happening – movements seemed tentative and lacking in motivation as if people were drifting in and waiting for the “real business” to begin. Gradually, things coalesced and began to liven up – the on-the-spot women’s choir rehearsal was a nice touch, and the business of getting dressed for the Easter Pageant afforded plenty of interesting detail (including, during the subsequent processional, a couple of self-flagellators whipping things along, though it has to be said, somewhat less than convincingly). But what helped redeem the chorus’s overall purpose was the ready-toned, superbly-disciplined singing, which I thought utterly committed throughout both operas, the result obviously a credit to the training of chorusmaster Michael Vinten.

Another feature which for me tipped an equable balance into distraction, specifically during CAV, was the revolving stage, employed brilliantly at one or two places – a veritable M.C.Escher effect at one point, with the villagers walking in one direction while being simultaneously taken the opposite way, during the Easter Hymn – but at other times moved, one felt, merely for the sake of movement, as if untrusting of the audience to make any kind of quantum adjustment of physical place on its own. PAG was better in this respect – every rotation had a clearly-focused motivation, the stage revolving as inevitably as a planet’s course around the sun.

Of course, opinion is a subjective beast; and my feelings may well run counter to what many people felt about the two operas’ respective merits – there was certainly much to enjoy, on both sides of the “divide”. Ultimately, though, these are singers’ pieces; and though a number of people I spoke to after CAV at the interval optioned that it seemed to their ears like “can belto” with a vengeance, I confess I didn’t feel quite so set upon because the singing was, for me, so committed, so heartfelt and involving. It wasn’t note-perfect, but despite emotion running freely and dangerously, the principals’ singing lines stayed remarkably intact throughout – Peter Auty, the British tenor, sang the role of Turiddu in CAV to great acclaim in Britain in 2008; and his ringing tones and wholehearted stage presence brought the free-wheeling, irresponsible and tragically fated village-boy-character to life with a vengeance. His pregnant and subsequently rejected ex-partner Santuzza was Ukranian-born Canadian-based soprano Anna Shafajinskaya, a singer diminutive in physical stature but not in stage presence. Her performance was one that lived every impulse of the part in both word and deed, her intensity occasionally risking her line in the name of heightened expression, but extracting a ready and immediate audience response to her predicament as the rejected “fallen woman”.

New Zealanders Anna Pierard (as a spunkily alluring Lola, Turiddu’s other” woman, the wife of Alfio) and Wendy Doyle (a severe but sympathetic Mamma Lucia, Tuiddu’s mother) turned in beautifully-focused singing and acting performances, though I thought Turiddu’s and Lola’s brief beginning-of-the-story tryst could have been lit and placed more suggestively, underlining both the clandestine and erotic in the encounter. Polish baritone Marcin Bronikowski’s initial engaging affability turned powerfully to vengeful rage upon discovering his wife’s infidelity – and though his acting didn’t entirely avoid the “stand-and-deliver” method, he still came across dramatically as a force to be reckoned with. However, his ear-biting encounter with Turiddu, I thought, generated far more deathly menace than the actual killing of the latter (done onstage, contrary to the composer’s directive, but par for the course in the anything-goes world of contemporary opera production). Presented this way the killing seemed a “pasted-on” act of over-the-top violence – but in an updated sense brutally true to the term “verismo”.

Warwick Fyfe’s ghoulish appearance as the unfortunate clown Tonio, announcing the players and their play, made a sensational effect at the second half’s beginning, bringing PAG to the same setting as CAV in what seemed like a macabre twist to the aftermath of Turiddu’s murder. It was as if a hole in the world’s fabric had suddenly been torn and a spectral being from “the other side” had climbed through. Fyfe’s singing and acting during the famous Prologue, apart from the slightest of strain on his highest notes, was stunning – though such was the “ensemble” quality of both productions, that it seemed as organically flowing in the scheme of things as any of the singers’ performances during the evening. Dohnanyi and the orchestra as well took to the brighter, more energetic atmosphere of the opening of PAG with plenty of engaging élan and muscle – an ever-so-slight horn blip mattering not a whit during the ensemble’s wonderfully sonorous precursor of the well-known “Vesti la giubba”.

As for the ill-fated couple, Canio and his wife Nedda, these were also memorable assumptions – Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas gave to his role of Canio a vocally heroic, though dramatically unattractive macho-plus flavour, one which underlined his dysfunctional relationship with Nedda, his wife (Elizabeth Futral). In fact, I felt his brutality deflected our sympathies away from the whole character of his gut-wrenching “Vesti la giubba”, his heartbreak at the discover of Nedda’s betrayal ringing hollow in the light of his previous behaviour towards her (despite this, his wonderful performance of the famous aria brought parts of the house to its feet). Futral’s portrayal of Nedda, beautifully voiced and nicely choreographed, was the very stuff of gone-to-seed male fantasy, using her physical allure with nicely insoucient but still visceral effect, while showing an underbelly of cruelty towards her besotted acting colleague Tonio. Its mirror-image was, of course, her love for Silvio, with whom she planned to escape that very evening. The duetting between Futral and Marcin Bronikowski (returning to the stage as Sylvio) transported us to realms of passionately lyrical pleasure, the more so against the aftermath of Canio’s rage against his wife for her refusal to tell him her lover’s name.

Act Two, featuring the players’ Commedia dell’arte-type presentation enabled us to enjoy the considerable theatrical skills of Andrew Glover, a reliable Beppe during the first act, but now a vibrant, attention-catching, guitar-playing punk-rocker Harlequin, the clandestine stage-lover of Columbina (Nedda), acting and moving with the greatest of confidence and surety. I did think the group’s performing stage rather too high, too removed from the on-stage spectators for meaningful interaction (more to the point towards the end, when it was next-to-impossible for Silvio to get to Nedda to try and save her). However the light-framing lines brought down from above were certainly effective, helping both to define the stage area and add to the occasion’s tinsel and glitter. From Canio’s entrance as Pagliaccio, the action rapidly became fraught, perhaps too quickly too soon, but certainly with dramatic impact, the curdling of the comedy’s fun-and-games burning and searing as Canio’s rage drove the action towards his brutal murder of Nedda, and throat-cutting of her hapless, ineffective would-be rescuer Silvio. Thus it was that PAG traversed a full, murderous circle in this production, the psychotic brutalities pretty much of a piece with the performance’s raw overall impact.

All-in-all, this is, to use the current jargon, a “must-see”! There are two Wellington performances left at this review’s time of writing, before the company moves on to Auckland, later in September (all details below). Though it’s strong and shocking stuff, it’s also great theatre, with some marvellous singing performances and high general production values. We’re privileged to have the opportunity of experiencing its resounding impact.

Wellington performances: St.James Theatre – 7:30pm Thursday 1st September; 7:30pm Saturday 3rd September

Auckland performances: Aotea Centre, THE EDGE – 7:30pm 15th, 17th, 21st, 23rd September – Matinee: 25th September 2:30pm