Welsh National Opera may have reached the ripe old age of seventy but it's very much alive and kicking. It celebrates this milestone Janus-like, looking both to the future, with the recent world première of In Parenthesis, and back via verismo twins Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, with which the company started back in 1946. Not that the productions here are seventy years old, but Elijah Moshinsky's 1996 Cav is so traditional that it could have been been used at the opera's 1890 Teatro Costanzi première. Moshinsky sets Pagliacci around 1950s post-Mussolini concrete buildings partly inspired by Fellini's film La strada.
Mascagni's opera comes off the stronger of the two here, right from its dropcloth of a hillside in silhouette. Michael Yeargan's set is a symphony in browns, plastered walls of terracotta and burnt umber plunging us into a narrow Sicilian street in which neighbours know everyone's business and share a drink at Mamma Lucia's, where palm branches are displayed on the lintel for Holy Week. Moshinsky's direction is utterly traditional, following the libretto to the letter. Yet this is no fossil museum exhibit; it's power comes from astute direction of the principals by revival director Sarah Crisp, bringing this slice of verismo to life.
Local hero Gwyn Hughes Jones sang the hot-blooded Turiddu, who's having an affair with Alfio's wife, Lola, inciting the jealousy of Santuzza, the young woman he's seduced. Singing with his trademark Italianate ping and burly tone, he was on thrilling form. As Santuzza, Camilla Roberts delivered the Easter Hymn radiantly, her soprano cutting through the magnificent WNO Chorus. She drew her claws in duet though, she and Hughes Jones facing off in a snarling confrontation after which Santuzza spills the beans to David Kempster's bluff Alfio. With Rebecca Afonwy-Jones an appealing Lola and Anne-Marie Owens an agonised Mamma Lucia, this was a strongly cast Cav that really delivered.
After a dropcloth pasted with 50s posters, Pagliacci inhabits a colder, darker world. Kempster's Tonio delivers his Prologue in mafia-style pin-stripes and the concrete building and open skies provide a drab canvas onto which Canio's circus troupe paint vivid colour via their clown costumes, unicycle riders and jugglers with flaming torches. Their ancient charabanc sputters into place, from which unfolds their stage.
But there's a touch of nostalgia here too. Gwyn Hughes Jones enters sporting the same conical white hat so familiar from countless Enrico Caruso photographs dressed as Canio, leaning forward to beat the bass drum. Never the most natural actor, he presented a seething Canio well, the sob in his voice aiding a ferocious “Vesti la giubba” as he plunged into despair at discovering his wife's affair.
As Nedda, there was sunshine in Meeta Raval's charming “Stridono lassù” – taken very swiftly – and her duet with Gyula Nagy's smouldering Silvio was beautifully sung, if awkwardly acted. Kempster, humpbacked and in a leg brace, was in freer voice as Tonio than as Alfio. His sturdy Prologue gave way to a malevolently bitter clown who extracts his revenge for Nedda's rejection lustily. Tonio is also – correctly – given the final line to deliver: “La commedia è finita!”
Both casts feature strong Welsh contingents – a tremendous statement for home talent – but pulling everything together was the masterly conducting of Italian Carlo Rizzi, mouthing every syllable from the pit. The Pagliacci Prologue bounced with brio, the Cav Intermezzo ached. Rizzi knows this music inside-out yet it still comes up like fresh paint after all these years. Not a bad way to celebrate your 70th birthday at all.
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