Since 2001, the small troupe of committed artists that make up Hampstead Garden Opera have staged their pint-sized productions in a tiny pub theatre in North London. This year, however, they’ve graduated to the much larger stage of nearby Jackson’s Lane – still entertaining those in North London’s community, but in the big space they rather deserve. For their new production of Italian double bill Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, HGO ensure their ensemble of musicians are there to be seen as much as heard. Twelve musicians with music director Oliver John Ruthven perform gloriously above the soloists and chorus, instilling the emotional turmoil – jealousy, betrayal and violence – taking place on the main stage.
19th century Italian composers, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo – members of the giovane scuola (young school) – were passionate about the verismo movement (literally meaning truthfulness, or realism) and portraying the honest realities of rustic Italian life. Sharing the same musical richness and obsessions with violent jealousy, it is a rarity to see these two operas performed separately.
With these musical facets in mind, HGO director Bruno Ravella has created an artistic and imaginative theatrical world filled with moving curtains, ravishing colour, and tremendous talent. Two musically inspirational operas are faultlessly presented by some of the finest, young opera singers on the fringe scene. The music soars and bounces across the four walls of Jackson Lane as if though the orchestra were twice its actual size. Ruthven takes no prisoners and keeps the music at a luscious pace, lively and splendid throughout.
Staying true to the Italian setting, set designer Flavio Graff implements rustic and natural tones. HGO’s skilful cajoles the audience into the first opera, primed with some of the best opera music ever written. The intermezzo is simply exquisite.
Michelle Prager has a strong, mature voice, and is a tour de force as Santuzza, the peasant girl seduced by Jonathan Cooke’s unsympathetic Turriddu. He aggressively pushes her to the ground as she begs him to stay with her and not the seductress Lola, finely played by Claire Tasker. Baritone Michael Caddock is an impressive Alfio, providing a confident performance as the lascivious Tonio in Pagliacci as well. While Jill House as Lucia, Turiddu’s mother, seemed a little shy on the first night, but will no doubt strengthen.
Moving seamlessly on from the final scene of Cavalleria Rusticana, the staging for Pagliacci is more vivid and eclectic, with some extraordinary costume designs that deserve credit for artistry and vision. There’s no blurring of the lines here – Ravella distinctly presents one performance taking place on top of another performance.
Caddock’s Prologue lightens the tone with smiles, as the chorus giggle to tenor Adam Music’s Canio. Music captures the insecurity felt by a commedia dell’arte performer, constantly tormented by the audience over his character’s ignorance and weakness. He received a loud round of applause for his touching performance of Vesti la giubba, and was rather frightening to watch as his Canio threatened Nedda, sung by Elisabeth Poirel, to death and Nedda’s secret lover, played by James Schouten. I leave an emotional wreck by the end of the night – this is truly the stuff of verismo opera.
By Mary Nguyen