You see, I promised you I'd post about something other than Butterfly. And so I shall. A million years ago (actually, just a bit more than a week ago, but it feels like longer) I was at opening night of Opera Australia's revival of Cav & Pag. And for various reasons, it has taken me until now to write anything about it. Chief among those reasons being, I suspect, plain old boredom. This was not exactly a fascinating night in the theatre.
It could have been. These are soap opera operas, after all. Abandoned women, faithless men, love, honour, duty, illicit affairs and illegitimate children, all kinds of fun stuff. And lots of big, fiery music to sing. Or not. This must have been my first complete Cavalleria (it actually isn't, but never mind) because I simply did not expect it to take such a very long time to get started. It's not that the opening scenes are lacking in beauty but the experience was far from electrifying. And even once the action proper got going, it wasn't quite the blazing row I was expecting. Pagliacci had a bit more energy to it, but some of the Cavalleria sleepiness seeped in nonetheless, and the production lost momentum just where you'd expect it to be gaining it: Tonio's Prologue was riveting, but by the time everyone started getting stabbed, the tension had dissipated. I giggled (sorry), yawned, and went home.
So, thank god for Jonathan Summers, is all I can say. If anything could tempt me back to this show, it would be his performances in both operas. He only has to stride on stage in Cavalleria and the show is his, and his singing is hands down the most interesting in the opera. Surely Santuzza, not Alfio, should be the one you're cheering for? Nicole Youl is sweet, but maybe a bit too sweet for Santuzza: as the timid outcast she was reasonably convincing, but once she got fired up, it didn't really make sense anymore — she just seemed like a needy meddler, not a tragic heroine, and — is this a terrible thing to say? — you could understand why Turiddu might want rid.
Speaking of whom: Dennis O'Neill divides me in half. I like to hear him sing. He's still one of the strongest and most stylish tenors at the company's disposal. I don't like to watch him sing. He doesn't move. There's no character development. A couple of arm flailing gestures and not much more, unless (as in Otello) the director has forced him into it. And if OA is going to keep casting him — and for all his dramatic shortcomings, I guess they should — it needs to be in roles in which he is at least vaguely convincing. Turiddu the supercool soldier, who leaves a trail of broken hearts in his wake? Please.
But a big thumbs up for the two mezzos of the piece. My mania for Jacqueline Dark is well established, so of course I was very happy to hear her as Mamma Lucia. She was surprisingly convincing as a decrepit old woman, vocally as well as physically — which actually just makes me that much keener to see her in a glamour part for once. The real surprise, though, was Dominica Matthews' fabulous Lola. No wonder Turiddu preferred her to Santuzza. I wouldn't necessarily have picked her voice as ideally suited to this kind of repertoire, but in fact she was wonderful, all husky tone and dangerous allure. And against a backdrop of Sicilian black, that red hair! What a thrill.
Broken record time, I'm afraid, but the star of Pagliacci is once again, yes, Jonathan Summers. You could go home satisfied after his Prologue. What else do you need? Maybe it's not the most luxuriant voice in the world these days, but its slender, growling quality is exactly what I like. He's a brilliantly paradoxical Tonio, menacing and yet sympathetic — not somebody you'd want to meet in a dark alley, but when he's being mercilessly mocked by Nedda, she, not he, is the villain, and you (or at least, I) can't help but like him. Likewise as he gives the drama its final flourish. He frames the opera, and so it becomes his opera. If it were all Tonio and no Nedda, I'd be back in a flash.
Dennis O'Neill's Canio is much like his Turiddu, except with a different jacket. The happy coincidence is that here, his dull stage presence is not entirely unsuited to the character. The scenes of adulation from the crowd are a bit hard to buy, but as the jealous husband with a young wife, he's reasonably convincing. He sings gorgeously of course, and has his rightful moment in the spotlight with "Vesti la giubba". Amelia Farrugia is a wicked, feline Nedda, quite fun to watch (and she looks very pretty) but disappointingly shallow — Nedda's petulant frustration with life never seems to give way to any more genuine emotion, even as she's planning her getaway with Silvio. But it's nice to hear her really sing in the middle of her voice, which hasn't happened much. Her upper register is still where all the colour (and money) is, but this at least was an improvement on her Rosina in Barbiere, who seemed to disappear every time the coloratura died down.
José Carbo is his usual magnificent self (I bet I've written exactly those words before) as Silvio. If only he had more to sing. But what he does sing is beautiful, and his sincerity to some extent makes up for Nedda's superficiality. He also does admirable double duty as a stagehand. And there's a bit of a star turn by Stephen Smith, whose slender but stylish tenor, striking physique (Teddy-philes will be happy) and irresistible comic energy have probably already gained him a bit of a following.
I know, or at least, I presume, that Maestro Licata has this kind of repertoire in his blood. And to be fair, it was pretty Italian sounding. It would want to be. But the whole performance did seem a bit leaden, somehow: sundrenched to the point of lethargy. Then again, that impression probably owed something to the dullness of the goings-on onstage. I think we could have done with a bit more urgency, both in the pit and above it.