Cavalleria rusticana/I Pagliacci

Cavalleria rusticana at Holland Park
Cavalleria rusticana at Holland Park
Opera Holland Park, London

On the finest evening for an Opera
Holland Park first night in years, the only umbrellas to be seen were on the
stage.   The balmy sunshine, that had
some members of the audience squinting as it broke through the canopy, helped
set the scene for a programme of sultry, Southern Italian passion.

The City of London Sinfonia play
with vigour all evening, under Stuart Stratford’s baton, and ensure that Mascagni
and Leoncavallo’s scores lift you from your seat, as they pulse with verismo energy.  Stephen Barlow’s Felliniesque
Cavalleria rusticana is more like a good English Summer day than a no-holds-barred Sicilian bloodfest in the blinding light, though.  There’s some sunshine but also a politeness
and emotional reticence that undercuts Mascagni’s blood-and-thunder tragedy.  

Peter Auty takes on the mighty
task of both leads, a big sing for any tenor, and there are no signs of vocal
weariness by the end of the evening but there’s also a coolness and awkwardness
to his physicality that makes it hard to believe this is someone (in either
case) swept away by uncontrollable passion.

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers’s Santuzza is
similarly withheld, despite her usual richness and artistry, but that makes for
an interesting interpretation of the dowdy, pent-up, stay-at-home woman who
stands no chance against Hannah Pedley’s sleek and shapely Lola.  Sarah Pring is a strongly felt Mamma Lucia.

Stephen Gadd also takes on double
roles, with the murderous Alfio morphing into a not-visibly-deformed Tonio in
I Pagliacci and his prologue to the second opera brings some
of the strongest singing of the evening.

Barlow places the chorus well
around the stage, painting some convincing pictures, and for Pagliacci
the glum 1940s setting is transformed into the colourful 70s, where plastic
reigns and a bank of blue crates dominate the action.  He gives the chorus plenty to do, so the
scenes teem with detail but there’s too much grimacing and stock Italian
gestures to make it feel real rather than just well-drilled.

There are various visual
references carried over between operas and, as a whole, it’s a clever realisation,
with the play within a play resembling some tacky sex comedy.  Julia Sporsen and Chang-Han Lim are excellent
as the adulterous Nedda and her be-denimed lover and Andrew Glover is a lively

This is a double bill that was
once popular but seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years.  It’s a shame because these are both fine
works and they get OHP’s 2013 season off to a fiery start.

– Simon Thomas