This delicious performance of the stripped back to its emotional basics I Pagliacci had an increased poignancy, being the last show of Iford Arts short summer festival.
The story is of the troupe of travelling players about to make their own performance before packing up and heading back on the road, with all the challenges of financial uncertainty, the “gypsy” lifestyle and pressures on relationships. So too the performers time in Bradford on Avon drew to a close.
The I Pagliacci was created last winter by Opera Ensemble that had been created by the artists who, in the face of the lockdown, saw the disappearance of their work and security of future bookings and therefore livelihoods.
Their show started in London and has been performed in Longborough and Grange Festival and now Iford Arts at Belcombe Park at Bradford on Avon. So, like this opera that has the travelling commedia dell’arte group performing to audiences, we had the touring Opera Ensemble cast performing to us, and then packing their bags and moving on.
While the audience at the exquisite Belcombe Court watching the show in the socially distanced open-air seating and enjoying the grounds of this treasure of a Georgian property, eating picnic on the lawns and interval drinks, was not quite the same as the villagers gathered to watch Pagliacci on stage they were probably just as hungry for live entertainment again.
The fact that the Christopher Luscombe production is taken back to its bones in terms of costumes, props, scenery enhances the work; not only in its dramatic relevance (yes, the show must go on) but also getting to the heart of the emotional powerhouse, the verismo of these frankly rough and damaged characters trapped for varying reasons in this fragile performing existence.
This is perfectly captured through the singing of the aria to the free birds by the excellent soprano Elin Pritchard as the frustrated and trapped Nedda and her increasingly tragic movement from “real” life to the character of Columbine as the ugly story unfolds. Similarly, the emotional and Italianate singing of Peter Auty as the equally trapped Canio, paying the fool for laughs while being eaten from the insides by loathing, jealousy and pride. Then we have the Tonio, traditionally played some sort of a hunchback, who was gloriously sung and powerfully acted by Robert Hayward with no need for any visual disfigurement to explain how he too is trapped and forced into his despicable acts. The characters of Silvio and Beppe are perhaps more, should we day, normal. Nicholas Lester sang a strong, attention-grabbing Silvio, the handsome local who steals Nedda’s heart and a fun Beppe from Aled Hall although he too succeeded in showing the different facets of this cynical, or just realistic, character.
The villagers in I Pagliacci also formed the chorus of the mezzoCav, the highlights concert performance of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana that opened the evening and was led by Susan Bullock in ravishing style. The rising young talent Thomas Kinch who had fairly wowed the previous afternoon singing Tonio in the New Generation Artists performance of I Pagliacci, stepped into the role of Turiddu and again gave a performance that defied his years. This young man is going paces and fast.
The raw emotion and power of the singing between Susan Bullock and Thomas Kinch in this very up close and personal performance knocked spots off many a chocolate box production. Outstanding was the Alfio from Paul Carey Jones in a role that can easily be undervalued in fully staged performances. His rich baritone was full of restrained anger until it erupted in the brutal duet with Turiddu.
The choral singing of the Easter Hymn was sublime with Susan Bullock working with the chorus and the full power and beauty of her voice seemed to be kept back for her solo arias and chilling duets.
Oliver Gooch conducted an instrumental ensemble, CHROMA, that more than rose to Leoncavallo and Mascagni’s scores with delightfully expressive and back-of-arm-hair-raising solo playing.
What if all (heavily stated-funded) opera companies had similarly given singers opportunities to work and audiences quality performances to watch during the pandemic.