Leaders in arts innovation, Victorian Opera delivers ingeniously conceived new program Laughter and Tears, the entertainment value of which is significantly enhanced by a fruitful collaboration with Circus Oz.
Separated from its long-term performance partner Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo’s concise dramatic opera Pagliacci provides the evening’s tears. Taking inspiration from the show-within-a-show of Pagliacci, Victorian Opera’s artistic director Richard Mills has crafted a light-hearted opening act that delivers the laughter.
The conceit of the scenario is that the two acts are set either side of World War II. Pagliacci’s famous final line “La commedia è finita!” is borrowed to end act one, when the outbreak of war interrupts the carefree lives of the players who are rehearsing their commedia dell’arte production. Pagliacci follows on seamlessly in the second half as the local villagers regroup and the theatre troupe rebuilds their company.
In a further stroke of synergistic ingenuity, Mills has utilised the music of a dozen or so composers whose work was originally inspired by the ongoing popularity of commedia dell’arte in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Richly re-orchestrated by Mills, and played by a sizable contingent of Orchestra Victoria in the Palais Theatre’s large open pit, the music sounds magnificent.
The madcap zannis are played by with highly physical flair by Kate Fryer, Geoff Dunstan, DJ Garner and Luke Taylor, with Tim Coldwell as doddering fool Capitano. As well as delivering plenty of visual slapstick humour, these performers from Circus Oz also perform gravity-defying stunts that are neatly tied in to the narrative action. When Dunstan swings high overhead as star soprano Elvira Fatykhova sings Nedda’s birdsong “Stridono lassù,” it is a thrilling highlight of the evening.
Director Emil Wolk keeps the comedy broad and the energy high. Storytelling is clear, and the shift in tone to jealous drama in the second half is convincingly achieved. The collaboration between performers is seen in sequences such as when Arlecchino, played by tenor Michael Petruccelli, tries to vain to get up to the balcony with the futile help of the zannis. Fatykhova also proves a good sport in swapping costumes with Fryer in a bid to fool Colombina’s keeper.
Set design by Julie Nelson is on a large scale but is still relatively simple in keeping with the modest context of the characters. The fire damage to part of the set after the war is a detail that might not be fully absorbed by the audience. The abundance of smoothly hinged trap doors indicates a high level of consultation with Circus Oz.
Eduard Ingles-Sancho’s lighting design includes a range of lush, atmospheric colours for the rear cyclorama.
Costume designer Harriet Oxley achieves particular success in dressing the large number of chorus members in individual yet well-matched 1940s outfits. Lead characters stand out distinctly, especially female lead Nedda who wears vibrant red in both acts.
Rosario La Spina is in superb voice as tragic clown Canio. His “Vesti la giubba,” performed in front of the Palais’ sumptuous red velvet curtain, is brightly sung yet darkly coloured. La Spina’s vocal strength is characterised by a powerful level of control that allows a full, open sound of unwavering focus. La Spina’s commanding voice also has a unique warmth that adds to the pleasure of hearing him sing.
Russian soprano Fatykhova, a frequent performer on the Australian stage, tempers her girlish beauty with a high level of maturity and experience. Fatykhova’s role debut as Nedda features the sweet nightingale tones of her soprano voice, which add to the vulnerability of the ill-fated character.
Petruccelli sings with a bright clear tone in the dual roles of performer Beppe and his stage character Arlecchino. A versatile and confident performer, Petruccelli proves completely unflustered in maintaining his lovely singing while taking part in physical comedy. His handsome looks often covered with a mask, Petruccelli still conveys a charismatic stage presence.
James Clayton, reportedly nursing a cold yet sounding strong and vital, makes a strong impact as insidious villain Tonio. Fabio Capitanucci provides solid support as Nedda’s lover Silvio.
Talented young singers Kate Amos, Daniel Carison, Michelle McCarthy and Shakira Tsindos join Petruccelli as wobbly minstrels trying to stay on track in the chaos of act one.
The Victorian Opera Chorus, featuring many singers seen elsewhere in lead roles, achieves a notably high quality in their singing.
Laughter and Tears achieves the rare balancing act of providing enough opera content for purists and enough entertainment value to captivate theatregoers of all ages and interests.
Laughter and Tears plays selected dates at Palais Theatre, Melbourne until 18 August 2016.
The Laughter and Tears program can be read online.
Photos: Jeff Busby