Rosario la Spina as Canio in I Pagliacci


Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci / 
Festival Opera / 
18-24 February 2020 / 
Municipal Theatre, Napier / 
By Jess Soutar Barron

Heading into the intermezzo that bridges the two works of Cav+Pag, the mafioso male ensemble throws long and sombre shadows up onto the church façade. The dim lights cast imposing, impressive figures of doom and despair. It’s all very bleak. Jump cut to Part 2: the circus is in town. Rounded smiles and bug eyes break the fourth wall, rip back the curtain and force themselves into limelight.

At its pivot Cav+Pav synthesises its themes: the duality seen in the double masks of comedy and tragedy; opposites forever fused. With one, always the other. Dichotomy in themes, in players (here is pathetic Santa, there Lola the minx; here Tonio the fool, there Canio the ringmaster) …. And also in craft as the two halves of this offering come together seamlessly: José Aparicio in the pit, John Wilkie in the wings.

Director Wilkie has an excellent and refined understanding of the pace, timing and quality of opera. What can take a few seconds as an action often requires enough ‘business’ to last a number of musical bars and Wilkie moves into more of a role of choreographer to ensure this happens. The interplay between his craft and what’s happening under the floor, and under the baton of Maestro Aparicio, is stunning. For their part the orchestra is phenomenal and delivers enough on their own to warrant the ticket price. Just the intermezzo is bang enough for my buck!

Festival Opera has learnt from earlier endeavours. This season we are given a more intimate, simple setting that creates suitable backdrop, exits and entrances for a (massive) cast of performers, principals, ensemble and children’s choir. Past seasons have seen a battle between set and players – perhaps between stage director and musical director – but in Cav+Pag each element knows its place and they work together to create a satisfying and textural mise en scène.

The set is cleverly and carefully painted trompe l’oeil. It’s rustic and charming, solid and somehow familiar. We know this courtyard, if not from first-hand European sojourns then from films (Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita). This helps to cut through any potential cultural cringe high art might bring. Immediately, we are immersed.

What Cav has in drama and despair, I Pagliacci has in frivolity and fantasy. The wretched courtyard with flickering candles and dour nonnas is transformed into a fiesta. Costumes and props are splendid and deliver what the static set cannot, and need not: the thematic switch, the magic.

Principals show how much opera is beyond just singing. Character actors are focused less on the grandiose – no need to fight for attention here – and more on intimate characterisation.  Wendy Doyle, in particular, delivers a fine Mamma Lucia.

Tenor Rosario la Spina is a certain favourite. Such a strong all-round star across both Cav and Pag; he’s a very generous performer, with tremendous strength and clarity. Anna Pierard has a lovely timbre to her voice, but it’s a stretch to find the fragility in her that Santuzza requires. Cavalleria Rusticana does give us a chance to fall in-love with the chemistry between the two, which makes the heart-breaking end to the piece all the more tragic.

It was a risky call bringing in songster Julia Deans, giving her under a year to learn how to ‘do opera’. The job takes not just an A-Grade voice, with essential accuracy and stamina, and the discipline to know how to use it, but also an onstage presence, an ability to ‘act’, and act big. Whatever the hurdles, Deans nails it. She doesn’t have the strength of some of her cast mates, but she brings a sparkle of fresh zing that works perfectly for femme fatale Lola.

The Children’s Choir is bravely voluminous, which speaks directly to the key focus of Festival Opera: youth development programmes. The more straightforward path would have been to take the top sprogs on offer and give adults in charge an easy run. This is not that. Here a whole diverse sweep of kids gets a chance to be involved and, more than that, to be guided and supported by older students who are PPV and beyond them ex-PPV students now in their 20s. Their own skills have been watched and shaped by the professional singers above them. To stay true to the central motif requires the full ensemble present for the majority of the stage time. It must be chaos backstage but on, it’s sublime. Two masks conjoined but diametrically opposed to stretch the metaphor.

The four Fonoti-Fuimaono brothers with LJ Crichton, Mana Halatanu and Villi Moore are a powerhouse that could drown out the women, certainly the children, but the combined control they bring means they harness their energy for use only when required. When they do let loose, it’s electrifying. And a reminder: you will not see a larger display of our future opera talent than here with Festival Opera.

What Cav+Pag is – a two-for, in the verismo style – has been well-covered elsewhere. Every mature company has theirs and Festival Opera’s sits comfortably in its collection, now seven years in the making.

This Cav+Pag delivers a perfect balance and a night at the opera with everything you need to feel fulfilled: comedy, tragedy, lust and heartache, eye candy and quality culture. Festival Opera is a regional treasure, giving the goods and building a legacy we’re all benefitting from. We must make a determined effort to support what we’re lucky enough to have.

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