Benjie del Rosario as Canio (Pagliaccio) © Laurent Compagnon
Benjie del Rosario as Canio (Pagliaccio)
© Laurent Compagnon
Pagliacci is only a short opera, but it contains one of opera’s greatest hits: “Vesti la giubba”. It’s one of those big arias for a dramatic tenor which can grip you by the scruff of the neck and carry you headlong through a vortex of rage and despair. Last night, in the modest setting of Jackson’s Lane Theatre in North London, young tenor Benjie del Rosario knocked “Vesti la giubba” out of the park. His voice could have filled a venue many times the size, all the notes were nailed in the middle and every phrase was perfectly shaped to capture the emotion – all the more impressive because it was sung in English. I hope this young man has a good agent, because if he does, we’re going to see a lot more of him.

Kirsty Anderson as Nedda (Columbina) © Laurent Compagnon
Kirsty Anderson as Nedda (Columbina)
© Laurent Compagnon
Pagliacci had started well, with an excellent rendering of the Prologue by Andrew Sparling. It’s one of opera’s cleverest soliloquies, playing with the fourth wall and explaining the composer’s philosophy in the most sardonic terms, and Sparling did it full justice: pin sharp diction and great relish in the disdain for what is presumed to be the audience’s expectations. But it was from “Vesti la giubba” onwards that the performance really caught fire. Flavio Graff created a well crafted stage-within-a-stage, and his over the top clown costumes could happily have graced a far higher budget company. Kirsty Anderson had been disappointingly unintelligible as Nedda, but she came into her own at the point of turning into Columbina. Lawrence Halksworth sang Silvio attractively and urgently. The climactic scene, when the chorus audience realises, too late, that Canio has come out of character and has real murderous intent, was as intense as I’ve ever seen it.

Andrew Sparling as Tonio © Laurent Compagnon
Andrew Sparling as Tonio
© Laurent Compagnon
Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Cav and Pag marks their move from the tiny Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre, above a Highgate pub, to the considerably larger, better equipped and more recently refurbished Jackson’s Lane Theatre, which seats 166. Oliver-John Ruthven and his orchestra were located on a platform high above the rear part of the stage. It made for good orchestral sound, which we heard very directly in the steeply raked seating. Ruthven managed the balance pretty well in Pagliacci, but it wasn’t the same story in the preceding Cavalleria Rusticana. With an orchestra consisting of one of everything, you’re prioritising orchestral colour ahead of balance, since you’ve got (relatively speaking) about three times as much brass-to-strings ratio as you should have. If trombone, trumpet or tubular bells are played full whack, the audience really can’t hear much of anything else, and there’s a lot of subtlety in Mascagni’s score that was completely submerged as soon as the brass started playing. By contrast, there’s something quite enlightening about hearing the non-brass parts played by what’s effectively a string quintet: shorn of the lushness of a full orchestra, you can fully appreciate the sheer melodic and harmonic quality of the writing.

Nina Kanter as Santuzza © Laurent Compagnon
Nina Kanter as Santuzza
© Laurent Compagnon
In this performance of Cavalleria rusticana, there was no questioning who is at the centre: Nina Kanter as Santuzza dominated the stage both vocally and with acting presence. Her voice was full, rich, intense and she was compelling to watch and listen to. But her performance suffered from one major flaw: I could hardly understand a word she was singing – it might as well have been a vocalise. Now I’ve heard Cavalleria many times, so I know exactly what she was singing about, but in the absence of surtitles, anyone who didn’t know the work well would have had no idea what it was all about. If HGO are going to attract an audience of anything other than opera experts, this is going to have to get better.

And they deserve to do so. Cavalleria rusticana was a thoroughly decent performance, with good backup for Kanter from Andrew Sparling (although he clearly relishes being the evil Tonio more than the genial if ultimately deadly Alfio) and Laurence Panter, who produced good singing and acted the feckless Turiddu convincingly. Pagliacci was nothing short of outstanding: I left it as thrilled as any performance I’ve seen. These performances are double cast, so I (obviously) can’t speak for the other cast, but this one absolutely needs to be seen.