Gyula Nagy (Silvio) and Meeta Raval (Nedda) in Pagliacci. Pictures: Bill Cooper

Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


SEVENTY years ago Welsh National Opera was formed, a herald of a new age of art and culture as the nation emerged from the devastation of war.

Its first performance was a double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, Cav and Pag as they are known affectionately throughout the opera world. The current production dates back to 1996, when it celebrated the 50th anniversary.

And for Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana we have to thank a sort of early version of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Edoardo Sonzogno, head of an Italian publishing family, ran a competition for one act operas by unpublished composers and Mascagni won in 1890.

Not only did he win but Cavalleria rusticana is recognised as the first verismo – realism – opera which also takes in the second opera on the bill, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

This is real kitchen sink opera, none of your mythical characters, noCamilla Robertsbility, or legendary heroes here, the stuff of legends and fables, just ordinary people with ordinary problems, usually of the heart.

Cavalleria rusticana is set on Easter morning in a Sicilian village, Turiddu, son of the local wine shop owner, was in love with Lola. He goes off to be a soldier and returns to find her married to Alfio, the village carter, an early version of Eddie Stobart.

Camilla Roberts as the wronged Santuzza

So, with Lola gone, Turiddu, at a loose end, seduces one of the peasants, Santuzza, and promises to marry her. They could have all lived happily ever, but that wouldn’t make much of an opera, so we discover he still has the hots for Lola an she for him, which all goes belly up when Alfio finds out about their adulterous affair – which means no one is going to live happily ever after . . . or even live in Turiddu’s case.

Camilla Roberts has a lovely soprano voice as Santuzza and manages to ring the emotion beautifully and silently during the majestic and moving Intermezzo as she sits alone in the village square with her world crumbling around her.

She is shunned by the village as a fallen woman and there are powerful scenes between her and Mamma Lucia, Turiddu’s mother, sung by Anne -Maries Owens.

David Kempster gives authority to the role of Alfio while Rebecca Afonwy-Jones is suitably flighty as Lola and the well-travelled Peter Auty, flown in at short notice after injury to Gwyn Hughes Jones, was superb in the tenor role of Turiddu.

One of the great strengths of WNO is its chorus work and here they were magnificent, particularly in the Easter Hymn.

The set is one of the most beautiful I have seen in a WNO production. Michael Yeargan has created an Italian street scene creating a picture Caravaggio would have been proud of, while Howard Harrison’s lighting design, realised on tour by Paul Woodfield, captures the bright morning light of Mediterranean sunshine, through midday to dusk quite beautifully. A quite lovely production.

Pagliacci provides a more basic set with an ancient truck as the centre peice, a truck which converts into a stage for the performance by Cannio and his troupe of clowns.

The opening is quite spectacular with unicyclists and stilt walkers and the circus theme continues with jugglers with flaming torches as the show must go on later.

The story again is simple, Canio, leader of the commedia troupe, is married to Nedda, who he discovers is having an affair with an unknown lover so that night’s kempstershow, the play within a play, becomes the play within a play within a play, and like Cavalleria rusticana before it, no one is going to live happily ever after, particularly Nedda and her lover Silvio in this case.

Kempster here plays Tonio, a crippled member of the troupe who has been rejected by Nedda and is out for revenge. He also sings the prologue, dressed as his character in the clowns’ comedy, Taddeo, as he tells us actors also have feelings and are real people.

Baritone David Kempster who sings both Alfio and Tonio

Meeta Ravel is the seductive Nedda, who plays Columbina to Canio’s Pagliaccio in the play within a play, a comic tale of how Canio exacts his revenge on his wife’s lover Taddeo – except tonight the revenge and lover are real.

The lover in this case is Gyula Nagy as the leather bomber-jacketed, pony tailed, Silvio.

Peter Auty steps into the breech once more as the wronged Canio, a role which has one of the best known arias in the tenor’s armoury, Vesti la giubba, translated as Put on the costume, or sometimes as On with the motley. 

It is an aria made all the more emotive by the fact of Canio’s profession, a clown. He is a man devastated by the infidelity of his wife donning the greasepaint and costume of a clown to go out to make an audience laugh. The show must go on.

It was a signature role of Enrico Caruso with his recordings of the aria top sellers in their day

Auty has a fine tenor and sang the aria well without perhaps finding the depths of despair and emotion that the role encourages.

He also handles the dramatic play within a play well as his anger and despair spill over to leave the sage littered with the bodies of his wife and her lover to give us the famous final line La commedia è finita! – "The comedy is finished”.

Lighting again played its part with the skillfully portrayed crude, harsh lighting of a travelling show, and, as in the first opera, side lights cleverly used in scenes to produce looming shadows to create dramatic effect.

For both operas there was the wonderful playing of the WNO orchestra under Carlo Rizzi who got deserved cheers both at the end and after a lovely interpretation of Intermezzo. Two fine productions, both directed by Elijah Moshinsky, with revival director Sarah Crisp, which are performed again on Saturday, 11 June.

Roger Clarke



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