Mascagni/Leoncavallo Double Bill – a Fitting Way to Celebrate WNO’s 70th Birthday

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana & Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 26.5.2016. (GPu)

WNO’s Cavalleria rusticana (c) Bill Cooper

Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana


Turiddu: Gwyn Hughes Jones
Santuzza: Camilla Roberts
Alfio: David Kempster
Mamma Lucia: Anne-Marie Owens
Lola: Rebecca Afonwy-Jones

Leoncavallo, Pagliacci


Tonio: David Kempster
Canio: Gwyn Hughes Jones
Nedda: Meeta Raval
Silvio: Gyula Nagy
Beppe: Trystan Llŷr Griffiths

Additional Perfomers: Richard Atkin, Peter Gregory, Stuart Hulse, Andy Kenny, Frank Rozelaar, Derek Tilley
Children: Eliana Brealey, Max Davies, Jamie Harrowing, Jack Irwin, Catherine Johnson, Morgan Miles Jones, Dylan Mingay, Daniel Morris, Alys Thomas, Georgie Treharne

Production  (both operas):

Director: Elijah Moshinsky
Revival Director: Sarah Crisp
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin

In a season marking its 70th anniversary, Welsh National Opera has shown ample evidence of being forward-looking (it is hard to imagine its present Artistic Director, David Pountney ever being willing to rest on his laurels or allowing ‘his’ company to do so). We have therefore been treated to world premieres of two excellent, newly commissioned operas – Elena Langer’s Figaro Gets A Divorce and Iain Bell’s In Parenthesis, both of which deserve to be performed again an other times and in other places in the future. In a sense, of course, both operas also looked backwards, Langer’s to Rossini and Mozart in the figure of Figaro, one of the enduring ‘myths’ of opera, and Bell’s to extra-theatrical events, to the first World War in general, and to the battle of Mametz Wood in particular, a battle in which the Welsh losses were enormous and which was fought (in July 1916) almost exactly a hundred years before the opera was first performed (in May 2016).

It was on April 15th 1946 that the fledgling opera company, which we now know as Welsh National Opera, gave its first staged performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Cardiff (which is now a pub, not far from Cardiff Central Station). The company was very much a community project (at a time when community arts projects were often driven from the bottom upwards, not encouraged from above as is more normally the case now). The chorus was entirely amateur, for example. In 1986 history of the company, Richard Fawkes tells the story of two miners who sang in the chorus; Margaret Williams, who sang the role of Santuzza, had to drive home to Brecon after each performance and regularly gave the two miners a lift as far as Abercynon, from where they had to walk a further fifteen miles to get to their homes, where they could have a short rest before working their morning shifts in the mine, and then getting back to Cardiff for the next evening’s performance. For the Thursday matinée they, like most of the cast, had to get time off work! Such was the enthusiastic (one might say passionate) commitment on which the company was built. Pioneers such as these would surely be pleased and happy with what their successors have achieved in the years since then. The programme on April 15th 1946 consisted of that familiar verismo double-bill, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci. Of the soloists who performed in that first production only a couple perhaps survive even as remembered names – the tenor Tudor Davies (Canio) and the aforementioned soprano Margaret Williams. At any rate I, at least, know little of figures such as the baritone John Morgan (Silvio) or the soprano Helena Hughes-Brown (Lola) (Fawkes provides cast-lists). Baritone Arthur Davies was praised as Alfio and Tonio. In a way that was to become (and remain) characteristic of WNO, the singing of the chorus was much admired. It was, thus, entirely fitting that, to complement its adventurous new works, the company should have chosen to end its anniversary season by performing the very same operas with which its history began (and to do so with predominantly Welsh casts, conducted by that honorary Welshman from Milan, Carlo Rizzi – now a good speaker of Welsh!).

In another gesture of continuity, the choice was made to perform the works in productions by Elijah Moshinsky, first performed by the company in the New Theatre in Cardiff in March 1996. Neither production now seems especially dazzling or memorable, though I did particularly like the setting for Cavalleria rusticana, very plausibly creating the busy square of an Italian village and endowing it with the sense of claustrophobia which is part of the secret of the power generated by this very short opera (a compression of space matching a compression of time).

Oddly enough the last time I saw this famous double bill, a few years ago, was in a largely amateur production in a back-street theatre in Pisa. Though the technical standards of the performances left a good deal to be desired, there was a shared understanding of the moral, emotional and social standards upon which both works are built which imbued them with real power; not, I suppose, surprising, in works which are, in far more than just a musical sense, quintessentially Italian. That I heard something of the same quality in these WNO performances (in which technique was far more assured and professional) was, I suspect, in some large part due to the influence of Carlo Rizzi. In music he knows as well as any conductor working outside Italy, Rizzi’s judgement of tempi and of orchestral weight was unerring and seemed to draw performances of real emotional understanding from the singers, performances sufficiently free of British reticence (yet still well-controlled) to do justice to these very ‘Italian’ worlds. Camilla Roberts’s subtle and tonally nuanced reading of Santuzza was as fine a performance as I have heard from her, deeply touching, with an underlying strength beneath the eloquent suffering. Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Turiddu relies more on power than subtlety, but where he can sometimes verge on the merely loud, here his power seemed more convincingly to speak of a genuine emotional intensity. His acting remains a pretty basic, stiff affair, however. In recent years, David Kempster has brought vocal authority and a powerful presence to many different roles and he was again impressive as Alfio, a man dignified and human in his pain, creating a fine balance of conflicting emotions. Something of a revelation, insofar as the role has hitherto struck me as rather dull and insignificant was the Mamma Lucia of Anne-Marie Owens (who was the Santuzza of the 1996 version of this production), who without any hint of melodrama communicated both a mother’s exasperation at her son’s behaviour and her agonised sense of loss at his death. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones was an appealing Lola, as coldy ‘innocent’ as the role requires. In many ways, and unusually, I found Cavalleria rusticana more powerful than Pagliacci on this occasion. It has an absolute economy of means, in which every word and every action matters, a kind of dramatic compression which is ruthless, where, at least in this production, Pagliacci felt more diffused, less rigorous in its tragic mechanism, less inescapably enclosed in a tragic environment.

Pagliacci_WNO, Canio; Gwyn Hughes Jones, Tonio; David Kempster, Nedda; Meeta Raval, Silvio; Gyula Nagy,
WNO’s Pagliacci (c) Bill Cooper

For all that, there was a good deal to enjoy and admire in the second part of the double bill. Gwyn Hughes Jones was, in general more convincing, in terms of characterisation, as Canio than he had been as Turiddu, even if his voice didn’t always have the intensity it had had in the first half of the evening, save perhaps in “Vesti la giubba” sung just the right side of the excessively sentimental. David Kempster, as Tonio, again gave a very assured performance, genuinely moving in his leg brace and frustrated lust, convincing as the schemer who creates the violent conclusion (Mascagni and his librettists felt no need of such a figure). As Nedda, Meeta Raval was full of vitality (both vocally and physically) and (surely not inappropriately in an opera which doesn’t much deal in such matters) lacking in real emotional substance. The minor characters of Silvio and Beppe got wholly adequate interpretations from Gyula Nagy and Trystan Llŷr Griffiths, respectively. But the strongest ‘character’ in this Pagliacci was the orchestral playing, richly eloquent and evocative at every point.

The Chorus, whether going to and from church in Cavelleria (or drinking outside Mamma Lucia’s bar) or excitedly welcoming the travelling theatre company in Pagliacci both sang beautifully and created that sense of community vital to the success of these operas. Indeed, I suspect that my abiding memory from the evening will be the chorus singing Easter Hymn in Cavalleria rusticana, coupled with Santuzza’s complex reaction to it and the sound of Camilla Roberts’s voice finally soaring above the chorus.

Glyn Pursglove


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