Director Andrew Sinclair has set Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci in post-World War II Sicily, with both featuring tenor Rosario La Spina in the leading roles.
In Cavalleria Rusticana, tall, brown brick buildings illuminated with soft shafts of light define a small piazza with unsavoury alleyways. They complement the shades and tones of the costumes, thus creating the effect of a sepia photograph brought to life.
The State Opera chorus busily animate street scenes and successfully evoke the era with a constant sense of Mafia menace and male rule.
Jacqueline Dark is outstanding as Santuzza, seduced and impregnated by Turiddu (La Spina). Even in 1890 the librettists for Cavalleria Rusticana were highlighting the shame felt by Santuzza’s excommunication by the Catholic church because she was pregnant out of wedlock.
The opera also displays the cruelty of Turiddu, who strikes and abandons her.
The stage is transformed for I Pagliacci, which has the excitement of a troupe of Commedia dell’arte performers coming to town. Tall cyclone wire fences and gates represent a street performance while at the same time creating the image of a prison.
Douglas McNicol sings the prologue, which explains that the audience is about to see a slice of life – real people in real situations. Joanna McWaters is superb as Nedda, beaten by her husband, the jealous and angry Canio (La Spina), and who suffers the unwanted advances of Tonio (McNicol).
Once again the chorus creates the feel of a town of citizens who revel in the visit of a group of strolling players but who ultimately witness two murders and a suicide.
La Spina is tremendous with his physical presence and sensational voice but he is also convincing as the drinking, jealous husband, enraged by his wife’s love of Silvio (Jeremy Tatchell). Adam Goodburn provides welcome relief as Beppe, one male who shows some compassion and concern for the unhappy Nedda.
The Adelaide Art Orchestra, under the baton of Nicholas Braithwaite, play with feeling and passion, and the scores of both operas provide numerous moments of power and passion. The chorus has ample opportunity to make its presence felt.
Cavalleria Rusticana / I Pagliacci is a night of love, seduction, jealousy, abandonment and abuse; the classic stuff of opera that results in death and tragedy. There are solos and duets to savour and enjoy for their beauty and glorious sound, but this double bill is also a salient reminder how long women have had to suffer the rages of their husbands, boyfriends and lovers.
These productions are not melodramatic or over-acted; they are as real as their composers and librettists intended and they make an artistic contribution to the ongoing discussion about domestic violence. These are not operas just for their time, they speak of matters that are as relevant for the present day as they were in their own.
State Opera is presenting Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci at the Festival Theatre again tonight (April 20) and Saturday (April 22).
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