If theatre in general, and verismo opera in particular, is based on the tension between pretence and reality, art and life, this performance of Pagliacci at The Grange in leafy Hampshire saw the reality of Covid 19 in all its rigorously observed safety measures.
This socially distanced and minimally staged winter production was a reboot of a first outing given at St James’ Church, Islington in October – an enterprising project that had been the brainchild of Welsh soprano Elin Pritchard. Undaunted by the pandemic she gathered like-minded friends (three of whom appeared in Christopher Luscombe’s Falstaff heard at the Grange Festival in 2019) with the aim of resurrecting performance opportunities in challenging circumstances. Pagliacci was not a difficult choice given its familiarity and modest length, and the need for only a handful of principals. It could, theoretically, allow for a reduced chorus and the only major change would be creating a slimmed down orchestral score – a transformation initially made for piano trio (at Islington) but here expanded for piano quintet.
Luscombe’s minimal staging, as before, includes a few scattered chairs and a chest for Canio’s dressing table around which black side panels and a dark blue rear wall evoke an atmospheric twilight rather than a sun-drenched Calabrian countryside. Stage lights (courtesy of designer Tm Mitchell) created their own shadows that simultaneously pointed to the work’s backstage turmoil and tragic end.
Opera is not an art form that lends itself to social distancing. Can passions be ignited realistically without physical contact? Can a couple generate a believable chemistry two metres apart? Of course, a singer/actor can communicate feelings without bodily interaction especially if body language provides all an audience needs to suspend disbelief. In respect of this touch-free presentation, the five principals amply communicated the feelings of love, betrayal, jealousy and revenge that form the heart of the drama. Indeed, paradoxically the tension which arose from distancing attracted an emotional energy like a moth to a candle, bringing an intensity of focus and illumination to these well-defined performances.
Amongst the cast – all in modern dress – Robert Hayward’s hunchback Tonio made for a stage-filling presence. His oak-aged voice was commanding during the ‘Prologue’, yet not so stentorian in its lyrical ardour as to invalidate the efforts of the instrumentalists. He formed a persuasive partnership with Elin Pritchard as the wayward Nedda (more gypsy temperament than sluttish minx) who mocked his smooth advances with her scarf (like a red rag to a bull) then rejected him with her belt – slicing the air as if brandishing a whip. It was a scene that may have lacked fierce, hotblooded interaction but there was good teamwork. Earlier, her reflections on freedom were stylishly delivered in the bird aria but Pritchard was at her most engaged in her love duet with Nicholas Lester’s gleaming Silvio, an emotionally charged scene where Covid-secure kisses are blown across the stage and all the more affecting for the absence of any embrace. Aled Hal brought distinction to Beppe, the lover within the play, and with comic guitar playing gestures fashioned an ardent serenade to Pritchard, now a playful Columbina.
It was Peter Auty’s richly characterised Canio who held the ear and eye for his smouldering portrayal of psychological collapse, embracing a sermonising ‘Un tal gioco’ and an embittered ‘No, Pagliaccio non son’. But it was his passionate ‘Vesti la giubba’, blending hurt and rage, and fearlessly letting rip in an alpha plus rendition, that held me in a vice-like grip. My only grumble here was the limp-sounding piano quintet where the full weight of string power at the scene’s apex had to be imagined. In a similar way, and due to reductions, the well-drilled chorus brought mixed results; rousing in the early ‘Ding Dong’ number, but unable to make sufficient impact for the Act 2 ‘Ohè! Ohè! Presto!’ despite much invigoration from conductor John Andrews who generated a suspenseful and energetic account, overcoming the limitations of his resources with commendable assurance. Overall, this Pagliacci was an impressive achievement with much standout singing.
Canio – Peter Auty, Nedda – Elin Pritchard, Tonio – Robert Hayward, Beppe – Aled Hall, Silvio – Nicholas Lester, Director – Christopher Luscombe, Lighting – Tim Mitchell; Conductor – John Andrews, Chorus, Berrak Dyer (piano), Fenella Humphries and Alexandra Lomeiko (violin), Lisa Bucknall (viola) and Sophie Gledhill (cello).
The Grange, Hampshire; Sunday 13th December 2020.