Small wonders

23 September 2017

9:00 AM

23 September 2017

9:00 AM

It has been a reasonably good week for peripatetic opera-loving female-underwear fetishists. In La bohème at Covent Garden Musetta slipped out of her knickers and swung them round, as everyone, except me, mentioned in their reviews; and now, in Leeds, in the first of Opera North’s ‘Little Greats’, what laughter the actors in the drama got was from Tonio and others trying on Nedda’s bra.

This new production of Pagliacci by Charles Edwards, sadly under-attended, was possibly too ingenious. It is set in a rehearsal room, and we see the first day of rehearsals and then the final run-through. It kind of works, but anyone unfamiliar with the opera would have found it mysterious, and some of the time I felt I was on shifting sands. Still, the central thrust of this sole real masterpiece of verismo hit one powerfully, from the superbly delivered prologue by the Tonio of Richard Burkhard to the final despairing cry that the comedy is over. There are occasional vulgarities in the score, the last few bars being the most egregious case. But mainly it is dramatically pungent, wonderfully melodious, and frequently inspired. Its usual twin, the shameless Cavalleria rusticana, is perhaps more coarsely enjoyable, but Pagliacci has refinement and, in the relatively complex figure of Tonio, the deformed (not that he was here) and jealous clown, pathos
and unease.

With an all-round excellent cast, Peter Auty’s Canio stood out, dramatically frightening and with his superb voice on its best form. But Canio is given the most chances; the build-up from suspicion to conviction to crime passionnel is plotted by the composer-librettist with skill, the performer of the role just having to be careful that he doesn’t feel too much too soon. Jon Vickers set the standard here, but Auty can be ranked alongside him. And the Nedda of Elin Pritchard was excellent too, in her Madame Bovary-like dreams, and her growing nervousness. Opera North’s orchestra showed that it is not only the Ring that they are consummate performers of, and Tobias Ringborg, not previously known to me, found plenty of colours in the score.

These Little Greats will come in various combinations, and audiences can pick which ones they prefer, or just go to a single one — there is a separate programme book for each of them. The second on this occasion was Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, to Colette’s marvellous text. A much trickier piece to bring off, it actually triumphs in this production by Annabel Arden to an extent I’d hardly have thought possible, especially after the Glyndebourne production, one of the few that I have taken as definitive. Wallis Giunta is brilliant as the Child (it’s performed in French), more plausibly boyish in figure and movement than any other I’ve seen. The cast clearly adore doing it, with John Graham-Hall outstanding as Tea Pot, a large upwards- curving black spout in just the right place. Maybe the Tom Cat and Female Cat could make more of their duet, but though Colette might have liked them to, Ravel might not have. Martin André conducted with the gusto that is often lacking when people tackle this piece, and brought the work to a close that was both charming and moving.

It occurred to me midway through the piece that it is really Ravel’s Parsifal, not perhaps an insight that everyone will want to share. But the Child is shown us, to begin with, very much in a state of nature, bent on self-gratification and failing to notice the feelings of others. When Parsifal is hauled on to the stage for shooting a swan and declares, ‘If I see something flying, I shoot it’, he has to learn pity, which he is able to do only through the recognition of his ill-treatment of his mother, leading to her death. The things that we have seen the Child mistreating, from furniture to live creatures, are all moved when he bandages the Squirrel’s wounded paw, and they murmur that ‘Il est bon, l’enfant’ — Ravel’s version of Parsifal’s final healing of Amfortas’s wound, with the knights’ approving chorus.

In the programme book there are heavyweight quotations from Melanie Klein, but she is only, as is so often the case with psychoanalytic thinkers, emphasising a point that has already been made with clinching conviction by artists.

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