Review: Opera North’s Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana @ The Lowry, Salford

Opera North’s Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana exhilarated the audience, leaving them shocked and exhausted by the show’s close at The Lowry in Salford.

The national company launched The Little Greats festival to explore the boundless variety of opera with six short and punchy one-act pieces.

And the two presented did not disappoint when they landed in Salford Quays.

Paired with Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci spearheaded the evening’s entertainment rather than fulfilling its typical berth as the opera’s dramatic close.

It depicts a tale of mad jealousy as three central male figures are entwined in a battle for the same woman while blurring the lines between theatre and real life, leading to a dramatic conclusion.

And despite Tonio’s (played by Richard Burkhard) warning in the prologue that the on-stage drama is ‘just an act’, the audience were still left reeling in shock come the final bloody scenes.

A slightly mishmashed opening sequence began with confusing inception-like ideas, displaying an opera within an opera as large numbers of actors milled about on stage.

Once the story settled though, and the protagonists made themselves apparent, the crowd were able to warm to them.

IMPACT: Pagliacci was a hit with those in attendance

Well, that’s not exactly true either, as each of the main characters suffered extreme emotional torment throughout; fighting their impassioned and immoral urges, and toying with the audience’s depiction of events.

Along with Tonio, Canio (played by Peter Auty) and Silvio (played by Phillip Rhode) completed the trio of those fervently lusting after Nedda (played by Elin Pritchard) and as a spectator, the actors did a splendid job in making us dislike practically everything about them.

Nedda, the sought-after woman in this affair, casually teased Tonio before shunning him, only to have an affair with the opera’s conductor, Silvio.

Meanwhile Tonio, acting as Canio’s trusted designer, was the first to betray him in attempting to lure Nedda, before finding out about her affair with Silvio and vaguely reporting it back to Canio.

Silvio is a man simply in love, and one might find themselves supporting him until the play reaches its dramatic climax. When given the opportunity to defend his beloved, he stood nonplussed, remaining quiet until the bloodshed was all but a formality.

IMPOSING: Cavalleria Rusticana’s set was one of the highlights

And then, the only one with any apparent loyalty, evident self-pride or genuine authenticity was Canio, and he ended up stabbing two of the protagonists.

So as you leave the theatre for a much needed break, despairing and bemused by the whole sordid affair, there was time to reflect on this high-octane, emotionally charged piece and really appreciate the fiery and passionate way the opera can stir your thoughts.

Add in the quirky modern features of the piece – a particular highlight being the KFC bargain bucket appearing as the romantic meal – and the stage was perfectly set for Cavalleria Rusticana to bring the house down.

Sadly though, it was the curtain-raiser that proved to be the evening’s peak.

Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana failed to rouse the audience until the final 20 minutes when it reached a gripping and poignant crescendo.

The set was cleaner than the opener, though, with the looming spectre of the 20ft cross dominating the scenery in this religious community where the church maintains an iron grip on the souls of its people.

A returning soldier, Turiddu (played by Jonathan Stoughton) found that his lover Lola (played by Katie Bray), had married another man and despite seducing a different girl, his overriding and obsessive desire for Lola made for another twisted tale of jealousy, anger and loyalty.

Santuzza, Turiddu’s unfortunate new partner, consumed by rage and guilt at his faltering ways, told Alfio, Lola’s other man, of the pair’s continued love affair and he swore vengeance against Turiddu.

The piece ends with an incident in Alfio’s new car as the two male protagonists collide in a blaze of anger, on the backdrop of a particularly unassuming scenery.

And yet, if my sleeping neighbour embodied anything, it was that this piece failed to reach the heights of its predecessor.

UNDERWHELMING: The second showing didn’t live up to its predecessor 

While it may have disappointed as a product, individual performances were still spellbinding, particularly that of Giselle Allen, who magically encompassed Santuzza and her emotional anguish.

She reached exceptional levels of intensity, truly befitting her character’s portrayal, a lost woman, whose love for Turiddu could not be reciprocated.

Meanwhile, she was well partnered by Turiddu and Alfio with the former’s capricious behaviour ultimately showing what it means – collectively and individually – to be human. Suffering from bouts of guilt, anger, jealousy and sadness.

The omnipresent mother and owner of the village shop, Lucia (played by Rosalind Plowright) loomed just like the overpowering cross, also gave a sharp cameo appearance.

And, despite my general disappointment by the approaching climax, I inadvertently found myself on the edge of the seat, leaning forward in anticipation and the explosive ending proved no let down.

While Cavalleria Rusticana may not have been as impactful as Pagliacci, the audience were still treated to an overwhelmingly entertaining operatic experience with drama, suspense and grave amounts of jealousy, anger and guilt at the forefront.

*Pagliacci & Cavalleria Rusticana are showing at The Lowry until Saturday, 18 November. You can buy tickets HERE. 

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