Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci seem destined to be performed together. Written in the late 19th century by young Italian composers in verismo style, both are about the juxtaposition of sex, love, infidelity, jealousy, honour and violence, one in a Sicilian village on Easter Sunday, the other in a Calabrian village on the Feast of the Assumption. Villagers and adultery are involved, death is the conclusion. State Opera of South Australia has revived its 2003 productions, directed by Andrew Sinclair, with Nicholas Braithwaite conducting the Adelaide Art Orchestra.

Rosario La Spina (Turiddu) and Jacqueline Dark (Santuzza) © Ali Feo
Rosario La Spina (Turiddu) and Jacqueline Dark (Santuzza)
© Ali Feo

Performing the role of both Turiddu in Cavalleria and Canio in Pagliacci, Rosario La Spina made the night his own. Hearing his beautifully fluid tenor voice flowing full of resonance was the highlight of the evening. He made both roles so believably real – captured in his “Vesti la giubba” – portraying the raw pain, anguish and heartbreak that donning a clown’s costume can never erase.

Setting Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana in a mafioso village, with Alfio as head man, worked well, adding further tension to the already dark interplay of unresolved fears, unspoken secrets and emotional conflicts burdening the villagers. It underscored Turiddu’s dread of the inevitable consequence of his adultery with Lola, Alfio’s wife. Mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark played Santuzza, made pregnant, and now abandoned, by Turiddu, with great emotion, conveying desperation to Mamma Lucia (well played by Teresa La Rocca), frustration, disappointment and anger, pouring out bile and vengeance to Alfio. Sung magnificently from off-stage by the Adelaide Philharmonia Chorus was the very moving Easter hymn to the Virgin. It became a dream sequence; in a powerful lighting effect, the stage was blackened, only Dark's face illuminated. A golden icon of the Virgin became highlighted, followed by the processional cross, and then the Easter worshippers poured onto the set. Finally, as if nothing had happened, Santuzza and Mamma Lucia took up again where they had left off. When Turiddu rejected Santuzza, the power and earnestness of Dark beseechingly grabbing La Spina's legs whilst pleading “abbandonarmi” deeply moved me.

During the intermezzo, Dark strikingly, yet wordlessly, demonstrated her pain at being excommunicated, throwing down her rosary, staggering to Mamma Lucia’s restaurant and picking up a knife. She considers ending her life, then rejects that idea, searching for and reclaiming her rosary, standing tall, collecting her case and, it would seem, setting a course for a new life.

Adam Goodburn (Beppe), Rosario La Spina (Canio), Douglas McNicol (Tonio), Joanna McWaters (Nedda) © Ali Feo
Adam Goodburn (Beppe), Rosario La Spina (Canio), Douglas McNicol (Tonio), Joanna McWaters (Nedda)
© Ali Feo

The set for Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci was similar to what one might find in a small outback Australian town, which worked well. It was a reminder that travelling players visiting such places were those struggling to eke out an existence. Leoncavallo’s music was lighter in tone. Pagliacci began with a remarkably impressive prologue from the pleasant baritone voice and beautiful phrasing of Douglas McNicol’s Tonio. He showed a fluent clarity of voice and persuasive emphasis in his acting.

Exceptional throughout was the State Opera Chorus, from the sweet voiced women, and weary working men, all in black, blending as one to sing of Easter Sunday at the commencement of Cavalleria, to the gathering villagers setting off to Vespers for the Assumption in Pagliacci. Soprano Joanna McWaters was consistently inspiring, her voice clear and expressive. Joined by baritone Jeremy Tatchell, her secret lover Silvio, better suited to this role I felt than he had been for Alfio in Cavalleria, he sang of his feeling of being discarded. Persuasive singing from McWaters, leading into a beautifully blended duet, brought agreement they would elope together that night. Overheard by Canio, who had drunk too much, the die was cast.

Jeremy Tatchell (Silvio) and Joanna McWaters (Nedda) © Ali Feo
Jeremy Tatchell (Silvio) and Joanna McWaters (Nedda)
© Ali Feo

As the crowd assembled for the evening performance, children on the ground, adults in tiered seating, I was reminded how remarkably well the chorus crowd scenes, and indeed all the scenes, had been choreographed to enhance the action. In verismo style many of the chorus and extras in Cavalleria had been chosen for their Italian heritage. In Pagliacci the townspeople audience were dressed as poor peasant having a day out. The play of Columbine and Pagliaccio was performed in exquisite slap stick fashion – until Canio lost it, an opportunity for La Spina to inject furious expressions of passion, threat and rage into his impressive tirade. No wonder the crowd, starting with the children, made their escape.

And it was over. Nedda, Silvio and Canio were dead. The audience had scurried away. In this production it was Tonio who came centre stage to announce “La commedia è finita!”, silhouettes of his bowing body projecting boldly on the back wall.