United Kingdom Mascagni, Puccini Cast, Chorus, City of London Sinfonia/Manlio Benzi, Opera Holland Park, London, 22.6.2012 (CC)
Patricia Orr – Zanetto
Janice Watson – Silvia
Puccini Gianni Schicchi
Anna Patalong – Lauretta
Carole Wilson – Zita
Jung Soo Yun – Rinuccio
Neal Cooper – Gherardo
Sarah Redgwick – Nella
Simon Wilding – Betto
Francisco Javier Borda – Simone
Charles Johnston – Marco
Catrin Johnsson – La Ciesca
Aidan Smith – Maestro Spinelloccio
John Lofthouse – Amantio di Nicolao
Niall Windass – Gherardino
Dickon Gough – Pinellino
Mark Spyropoulos – Guccio
Martin Lloyd-Evans – Director
Susannah Henry – Designer
This is not the first time these two one-acters have been coupled, and indeed they make a most satisfactory, contrasted pairing. It is typical of Opera Holland Park that they bring us a chance to hear Mascagni’s rarely heard Zanetto of 1896. (There have been a couple of recordings, but it certainly has never hit the headlines.) It follows on from their L’amico Fritz last season. It is a sketch more than a fully fledged entity, like a window into an opera that might have been. Dramatically it is a brief episode into two peoples’ lives; musically it is a succession of arias, all of which are attractive and some of which are full of passion, none of which, though, can justifiably be described as memorable.
The plot, set in Renaissance Florence (although moved to what looks like the nineteenth century here) is simple. Zanetto searches for an idealized love named Sylvia. He happens upon her (not knowing it is her), and Sylvia dismisses him without revealing her identity, realizing she cannot live up to the dream. The set is deliberately dilapidated and dour, a reflection of Sylvia’s loss of interest in life. All this takes a mere forty minutes, but it is forty minutes of musical skill and charm. But there is a flip side. Although it is not quite true to say that we need to hear this to really appreciate Cav, there is a grain of truth there. Mascagni’s arias, interesting though they are, are not touched by the hand of genius. Yet the use of an off-stage chorus at the beginning is highly effective – no, intriguing. It drags the listener into Sylvia’s sad world, a room and a life defined by the past not the present.
The star was, correctly enough, Patricia Orr in the title role, an up-and-coming singer whose freshness effectively made the performance – freshness both of voice and of demeanour. The purity of her tone implied a youth effectively; her aria wherein she introduces herself was magnificently fresh and airy. Vocally, Janice Watson, by far the better-known of the two singers, was not on her best form, her projection a little lacking, her diction occasionally less than perfect. Yet her dismissal of Zanetto was a dramatic success, justifying in a stroke the decision to stage this rarity.
There were no such problems of unfamiliarity with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, another opera set in Florence. A fascinating booklet essay by Adrian Mourby tracks the similarity between the two composers. The contrast between the tragedy of Zanetto with the fizzing comedy of Schicchi was massively effective. This performance shone for two contrasting reasons. Firstly, there was the true sense of ensemble that shone through the comedic patter; secondly, there was Alan Opie’s Schicchi. The production began with a long (too long, actually) silent play as the old man Buoso breathes his last, but once this was over the baton of Manlio Benzi ensures a sparkling performance. There was a genuine feeling that the orchestra was having a ball. Comedy was right at the forefront, and the sprightly reactions of the orchestra ensured a different world from the Mascagni.
Jung Soo Yung was a most ardent Rinuccio, impulsive and full of life, a believable lover, while soprano Anna Patalong, a recent Guildhall graduate, threatened to steal the show with the most famous (oh so brief) aria, “O mio babbino caro”, taken at a perfectly flowing two-in-a-bar by the conductor. But it was the experience of Opie that was most memorable, his voice on top form and his dramatic timing perfect.