Brisbane’s first night regulars had the agonising choice last night between the Opera Queensland double bill and the long awaited QTC/Bell production of Richard III. Those who plumped for the Lyric Theatre end of the Perfoming Arts Centre probably figured that they’d sacrifice good drama for good musical performance.
In fact, they got both. Director Andrew Sinclair’s approach to the “immortal twins” is rivetting drama, superbly conceived and executed. Gone is the melodramatic approach (seemingly dictated by the texts) which often makes these two works parodies of opera. In its place is vivid drama, realistically set and acted, to which the talents of the production team all contribute meaningfully. Shaun Gurton’s sets, Donn Byrnes’ lighting and Victoria Rowell’s costumes all evoke the scene of immediate post-war working class Italy (or at least that scene as we know it through cinema, which is Sinclair’s intention).
The setting of Cavalleria Rusticana belies the literal meaning of Mascagni’s work (“rustic chivalry”) in its depiction of ghastly urban drabness bleak dark brick walls, women dressed in the black of age or widowhood while the men are equally plain in appearance. The setting and costumes make the few flashes of colour Lola’s daffodils, a child in first-communion veil, a fleeting church procession, Turiddu’s blood-spattered body all the more vivid. The chorus and extras are imaginatively deployed as they ebb and flow in the communal piazza, and are seen to represent all varieties of community life young and old, pious and rogues, young men in a hurry, a good-time girl or two contrasted with elderly peasant women. And even the odd bicycle swerving through the crowd (bringing to mind Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 cinema classic “Bicycle Thieves”).
The success in organising a large cast of principals, chorus, children and extras must also be attributed to assistant director Cathy Dadd. Similarly realistic are the townspeople scenes in Pagliacci as the locals gather to welcome the travelling comedians.
For both operas the work of the chorus under new chorus master John Dingle is assured and confident, with the added magic of Laurie Gaffney’s Imogen Children’s Chorale, and there is splendid music from the Queensland Orchestra under Richard Divall’s baton. The brass elements are particularly memorable.
Of the principals, American-born Arax Mansourian sings a rich and commanding Santuzza in Cav, while also acting brilliantly the spurned girl-friend who betrays her lover to cuckolded husband Alfio. Patrick Power gives a heartfelt Turiddu, opposed by Ian Vayne’s tough and no-nonsense Alfio. (Vayne does a remarkable character switch to the hunchbacked Tonio in Pagliacci, which he carries off most convincingly.) And it is a pleasure to again see and hear veteran Brisbane contralto Margreta Elkins as Turiddu’s mother Mamma Lucia. Local Con graduate Susan Dunn sings a nicely voluptuous Lola.
In Pagliacci Georgian tenor Badri Maisuradze is absolutely magnificent as the murderously jealous Canio. In fact you’d be lucky to see a better performance in this hemisphere (acting plus singing) of the tragic clown, both in the famous “Vesti la giubba” (“On with the show”) and in the opera’s denouement, as the play-within-a-play degenerates into a genuine display of outrage and passion.
But I also loved Suzanne Donald’s depiction of Nedda as an enslaved girl desperately seeking escape from her situation but underestimating Canio’s obsession with her. She successfully captures anxiety, desperation and brief happiness while also play-acting superbly her Commedia dell’arte role as Columbine. We also get good supporting performances from Bernard Wheaton and Tim DuFore as Beppe and Silvio.
In both operas there is a pleasing consistency of focus from the principals, particularly given that this is a “travelling production” with a mixture of old and new hands among the cast.
Finally, we should thank Opera Queensland chief executive Chris Mangin for arm-twisting his interstate colleagues into agreeing to a fresh run to two operas which many would happily have consigned to history. Vesti la giubba!