sat 23/10/2021

Pagliacci, Opera Ensemble, Longborough review - stripped down but live | reviews, news & interviews

Pagliacci, Opera Ensemble, Longborough review - stripped down but live

Pagliacci, Opera Ensemble, Longborough review - stripped down but live

Finding the essence of a minor masterpiece

This clown isn't laughing: Canio (Peter Auty) at his wits' end with wife Nedda (Elin Pritchard) while manipulative Tonio (Roberrt Hayward) looks onAll images by Matthew Williams-Ellis

List all the problems that the pandemic places in the way of operatic performance, and you might well end up wondering why anyone would bother.

Opera Ensemble, however, have bothered, in the shape of an accomplished and moving production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, stripped down in a variety of ways, deprived of its normal house-mate, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, and accompanied by a band in various degrees of shrinkage: a piano trio when the production opened at St.James’s Church, Islington, in October, and for a couple of performances at the Grange Festival earlier this month, nothing but a piano for the performance I caught this weekend at Longborough. 

As well as the five soloists, Islington had a small chorus. Longborough did without that appurtenance as well, which meant the loss of some music, and some minor dramatic issues just before and during the Act Two commedia, where the crowd have to respond to Canio’s gradual change from acting to real. So it’s easy to say what was lost, in an unheated theatre, with anti-social distancing and everyone (or nearly everyone) but the singers in masks and overcoats. 

The astonishing thing - which won’t astonish everyone, I know - is that when it came to the point none of this really mattered much. Like every great opera (and I do think Pagliacci is a minor masterpiece, not a potboiler, as it was dubbed by the music critic of the Sunday Times), this one has a dramatic essence at its core, something that can easily be obscured by fancy directors with big ideas and too much cash. Christopher Luscombe’s production brings out that essence, and leaves it naked and exposed, with the help of a fine team of singers and a brilliant pianist, Berrak Dyer, who must often have played this and other works for rehearsals, but here found herself doing it, flawlessly, to an audience who could hear every note in the intimate Longborough theatre. Elin Pritchard and Peter Auty in PagliacciPagliacci is all about the theatre not as an escape from life, but as a simulacrum of it, and its most subtle moments are those leading up to Canio’s “No! Pagliaccio non son,” where he keeps slipping in and out of his stage character, while Nedda desperately tries to preserve the commedia. The lack of a stage audience made this harder for the singers (presumably they were watching online), but they brought it off nonetheless. Elin Pritchard played a very convincing Nedda, moving and responding to the other characters despite not being allowed near them, and singing like an angel, delicate and fluttery in her song about the birds, varying her style cleverly as she watches trouble approaching in the play. Peter Auty is not the most mellifluous of “Italian” tenors, but he has the idiom to a “t,” and though the production dressed him as if he might have had a bit on the side himself, he made Canio, sobs and all, a genuine object of pity in his hopeless longing for a faithful wife (Pritchard and Auty pictured above)..

Of the other characters, Tonio is for me the most problematical. His prologue is one of the score’s most beautiful stretches, but his philosophy doesn’t survive curtain-up (when there’s a curtain), after which he becomes a seducer and a sneak. It’s hard to get all this right, but Robert Hayward, whom I last heard singing another highly ambivalent character, Musorgsky’s Ivan Khovansky at WNO, has the voice for it (despite a not quite trustworthy vibrato) and a strong, vivid presence (pictured below). Silvio, Nedda’s lover, is a less colourful personage, certainly a safer bet, but with not much chance to develop beyond the image of her yearning for a settled life. Nicholas Lester did what could be done with the part, singing immaculately in their Act 1 duet, and blowing her a (distant) kiss at the end of it - quite enough to enrage the already jealous Canio, no hugging required. The fifth character, Beppe,  is more than just a walk-on, and Aled Hall played it just right, struggling to keep the peace, and adding a nice serenade at the start of the play, complete with non-existent guitar.  Robert Hayward as TonioThis wasn’t the only missing prop. In fact props were mostly neither to be seen nor needed. Nedda (Colombine) put a cloth on a table and Tonio (Taddeo) hid very obviously behind it, in lieu of exiting. But this is a travelling theatre, where imagination is all. And so it was with Luscombe’s life-stage, with ambiguous clutter at the back that might be normal Longborough backstage, but almost empty upstage, which allowed movement, effectively choreographed by Ewan Jones. All in all it was a performance that, omissions apart, served the score, and no composer could ask more than that.

And what a pleasure to be back in a theatre, especially one that offers such a warm welcome under such harsh conditions. Longborough has Wagner scheduled for June. I mean no disrespect to the Opera Company when I say that I hope they won’t have to be called in to put it on (though it might be interesting).

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