Forty years is a long time and in its four decades of producing opera in Gozo, the pioneering Aurora Opera House never put on opera’s most famous ‘twins’ in one evening. The only time Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana was put on its stage was in March 1984. This was a Manoel Theatre production under the baton of Joseph Vella and looking at the list of productions at the Aurora, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is nowhere to be seen. They finally came together in mid-October so in itself this was quiet an event. Some very popular operas have been staged even three times at the Aurora, therefore, it was about time this very popular double-bill made an appearance.
Much has been written about these two works known for their tragic stories, their realism and the very humanity of their characters, who are so very well-etched musically as endowed by their respective composers. Time and time again one knows the story. Yet, when the interpreters are so talented, when the production moves along at a slick pace and the music rich, melodious, lyrical and dramatic does its bit it is impossible not to feel a shiver going up one’s spine.
Indeed, I found moments when this was impossible not to succumb to Santuzza’s despair in Voi lo sapete o Mamma and her entreaties in the great duet with Turiddu. In Pagliacci other great moments were Canio’s crie de coeur in Vesti la giubba and his thoroughly realistic jealous frenzy in No, Pagliaccio non son! That is just to mention a few.
The artistic direction and the highly practical set designs were in the hands of Gianmaria Romagnoli. The Sicilian atmosphere was almost tangible in Cavalleria Rusticana. The tableau at the opening is a depiction of what one already knows, that the opera will end in tragedy. It was probably inspired by who knows how many Pietàs.
The Sicilian atmosphere was almost tangible in Cavalleria Rusticana
Many in the cast had faces painted white. Several other ‘novel’ touches had Santuzza, at a certain point, wearing a large cross hanging from her neck... the cross of her dishonour and despair and which in a frenzied rage she threw at the door of the church. Her plight found more sympathy than the poor Duchess of Malfi did some years ago!
I found one detail a bit puzzling. It is Easter and the statue carried in procession was that of Our Lady rather than the Cristo Risorto who is invoked in the great climactic central scene.
Joanna Parisi’s Santuzza was absolutely brilliant vocally and acting-wise with a rich, warm, well-controlled and powerful voice. Tenor Giancarlo Monsalve had a very tough double job – singing Turiddu and Canio and he portrayed the two tragic characters very well. He was the rather irresponsible local seducer who overplayed his hand in one role and in the other was the jealous, betrayed husband with good reason to feel aggrieved, but, too much out of control, leading to a double murder a furia di sangue.
His robust voice with its mellower turn of phrase sounded firm and full-bodied. It was good to see and hear baritone Alberto Mastromarino, a singing-actor par excellence who was on the Aurora stage a few months ago as the benign Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. This evening he first took the role of the decisive, wronged braggart Alfio who did not take kindly to being cuckolded by his wife. In Pagliacci he continued displaying his versatility as the sneaky, vengeful Tonio. Rich of voice and convincing in mien, this singer excellently carried off both roles.
In Pagliacci soprano Elena Kelessidi’s Nedda started off not very convincingly but gradually warmed up and sang and acted with greater assertiveness.
Of the secondary characters one cannot praise enough Graziella Debattista’s Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria Rusticana and in Pagliacci tenor Cliff Zammit Stevens as Beppe/Arlecchino and baritone Marzio Giossi as Silvio, Nedda’s ill-fated lover.
Unfortunately, in Cavalleria Rusticana mezzo-soprano Christine Dalli’s Lola failed to make an impact. One always sees Lola as a sinuous, calculating enchantress with a rich, low, sultry and well-pitched voice, which was not the case here. Was it an off-day perhaps? I have heard Ms Dalli sing better.
The Aurora Opera Chorus was splendid and the crowd scenes well-managed. I have seen many a Pagliacci but this was the first time that it had in its cast what seemed to be like real-life professional jugglers and acrobats. If not so, all the better for them.
So much work had been put into the costumes, the building of the set and, of course, there could have been no opera/s without the fine musical direction of Colin Attard and the usual, reliable stability of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra under the leadership of Marcelline Agius.
The many people whose voluntary work and passion for opera make opera performances in Gozo such a unique experience and a cultural fact of life must also be thanked for their hard work. The country is grateful to them.
This was the first time in many years that the artistic direction of an opera production at the Aurora was not Novella Tabili’s. Aurora Opera House dedicated this special 40th anniversary production to soprano Flavia Tabili, who was the first leading soprano to sing at the Aurora in 1977. It was also dedicated to her daughter Novella and the guild of volunteers above.
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