Cav and Pag

ARTS, Music,

NBR New Zealand Opera
Aotea Centre, Auckland | September 15-25

More often than not, opera marketing involves exaggerated claims about the level of violence and sex punters can expect in their evening’s entertainment. For once, the hype is justified: New Zealand Opera’s current production of the most famous opera double-bill features bad language (“Tell me his name or I’ll kill you, slut”), multiple murders, infidelity, simulated sex, and a character that resembles Snookie of MTV’s Jersey Shore.

Pietro Mascagani and Ruggiero Leoncavallo were one hit wonders, but their short operas Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) and Pagliacci (1892) have found a secure place partnered together in the repertoire. In one of the directorial masterstrokes of this brilliant New Zealand Opera production, the curtain to the second work, Pagliacci, opens to the mayhem of the conclusion of the first, providing a link between the two. The revolving centerpiece of the remarkable set remains the same for both operas—its transformation aided by the sympathetic lighting design of Jason Morphett—and that it works so brilliantly is testament to the skill and imagination of veteran designer John Parker.

There’s not much to the story of Cavalleria Rusticana (‘Rustic Chivalry’). It’s compact and intense; “It gets on with it,” the conductor Thomas Beecham once said. Turiddu, lover of the despairing and pregnant Santuzza, has been with Lola, wife of Alfio. Santuzza reveals Lola’s indiscretions, so Alfio has Turridu dispatched. In this performance the undoubted star was the powerful Anna Shafajinskaia, playing Santuzza, who gave us a particularly moving (though not overdone) Voi lo sapete, where she reveals her betrayal to her lover’s mother. New Zealanders Anna Pierard and Wendy Doyle were excellent in support both vocally and dramatically: Pierard was suitably seductive as Lola, and Doyle a reserved but sympathetic Mama Lucia.

The chorus were outstanding throughout, though at one point (perhaps justifiably) seemed to be barely suppressing laughter as they simultaneously crawled, sang and, self-flagellated on a moving set. The early wobbles of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, under Oliver von Dohnányi, might be attributable to opening night nervousness, with the orchestra sounding much more secure by the second work of the evening.

While Cavalleria Rusticana contains more hits, Pagliacci (‘Players’) is more sophisticated both musically and in terms of narrative. The story is again the tragedy of a jealous husband who kills his wife’s lover, but with theatrical innovations—a play within a play, a prologue directly addressing the audience—and much more refined music.

In this New Zealand Opera production of Pagliacci, the musical performances were uniformly elegant and the characters convincingly realised. Warwock Fyfe, playing Tonio the pathetic clown, steals the show with his sense of comedy, while Elizabeth Futral, negotiating what are effectively two roles as Nedda and Columbine, provided the vocal highlight. Rafael Rojas deserves strong praise too as the anguished Canio.

In the wrong hands these works might seem slight, but director Mike Ashman’s Pag and Cav presents these operas in the best possible light. This is a triumphant production, at once moving, entertaining, and intelligent.