An inspired and telling tale of two mediums: the opera and the circus.
Laughter and tears. We know that opera has both in abundance, even if not always in the same work. And we also know that the genius of opera is that its laughter and tears somehow resonate with our own joys and sorrows, leaving us hopefully better off as a result of the encounter.
Victorian Opera’s latest show, produced in collaboration with Circus Oz, delivers plenty of the advertised emotional commodities and does indeed leave us better off at the end of the experience. The “tears” come presented in an engaging and relatively straightforward production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, while the “laughter” is designed as a prelude to that well-loved verismo piece; contextualising the story and offering a pastiche of late Renaissance and Baroque vocal and instrumental morsels (including works from Monteverdi and Scarlatti through to Gesualdo) deftly chosen and orchestrated by Richard Mills, who also conduct.
Laughter is set in the last peaceful days of 1939 and shows us an Italian circus troupe preparing for its next commedia dell’arte performance. The preparations are all decidedly Italian. With more slapstick than The Keystone Cops and more doors than a Feydeau farce, the four Circus Oz performers (Kate Fryer, Geoffrey Dunstan, DJ Garner and Luke Taylor) do their “best” to aid Arlecchino in his amorous quest for the lovely Innamorata, imprisoned by the ugly, bumbling Capitano (brilliantly played by Tim Coldwell), producing plenty of belly laughs along the way. There is a cunningly judged dose of lewdness and the comedic timing is perfect. All this frivolity is brought to an end by the announcement of war.
Laughter allows some up-and-coming singers of the company a chance to shine. Michael Petrucelli acquits himself well as Arlecchino, assisted by the well-blended voices of Kate Amos, Daniel Carison, Michelle McCarthy and Shakira Tsindos.
Six years later, the troupe reassembles after the war. Here come the “tears”. From the outset we are warned that it is not business as usual: the ominous prologue asserts that theatre and life are not the same thing. In somewhat contrary fashion we are also told that sobbing can become music. This is certainly the case by the time we get to Rosario La Spina’s heartbreaking account of Vesti la giubba which is delivered with the all-enveloping emotion and force of the Italian operatic tradition. Instead of wearing the traditional clown costume, La Spina appears as a caricature of Mussolini, underlining the emotional frustration which fuels the opera’s final showdown.
Elvira Fatykhova admirably balances the vulnerable side of Nedda’s character with her determination to love freely. By the time her important aria Stridono lassù arrived, her voice was in full bloom. The aerobatics that accompanied the aria elicited as much opening-night applause as her singing. James Clayton excels as the rebuffed lover and villain, Tonio, exuding a palpable malevolence throughout. Fabio Capitanucci sang Silvio with ardour, doing what he could to establish his character in the rather fleeting moments afforded him by the score. With youthful voices predominating, the VO chorus sang with admirable energy and involvement, ably and empathetically accompanied by Orchestra Victoria.
A number of things impressed about the production. The collaboration between VO and Circus Oz was one of those remarkable instances of artistic stars perfectly aligning. Obviously the guiding hand of distinguished director, Emil Wolk, who had worked as a vaudeville consultant of David McVicar’s production of Pagliacci at the Met, meant that the synergies between the two art forms would be fully and intelligently exploited. Updating the action to World War II imposed no stress on the scenario and arguably deepened its relevance. The unfussy nature of the Leoncavallo was a perfect foil for the acrobatic artifice of the first half, and allowed the audience to ponder more deeply the connections between life and theatre that are that the heart of the opera. It was also refreshing to see Pagliacci without the usual prelude of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. A lighter first course does help one appreciate the main course all the more.
Do go laugh and cry while you can.