The Little Greats – Pagliacci & Cavalleria

ON 1

A double helping of duplicitous drama made for a dazzling debut at Opera North’s festival of ‘The Little Greats’ at The Lowry last night.

Back-to-back performances of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana captivated the crowd, who – having taken the rare opportunity to see two short operas in one evening – were rewarded with virtuoso vocals by sopranos Elin Pritchard and Giselle Allen respectively.

With each opera revisiting the timeless themes of sexual jealousy and vengeance, they made for a perfect pairing – featuring illicit couplings, spurned lovers and culminations in shocking acts of violence.

Pagliacci begins with company director Canio (Peter Auty) briefing his assembled cast at the first rehearsal of a new production; his wife Nedda (Elin Pritchard) is lead vocalist and Canio is cast as her cuckolded husband.


When Nedda later rejects the unwanted advances of company designer Tonio (Richard Buckhard), he tells Canio that Nedda is cheating on him in a fit of spite. As the final run-through begins, Canio breaks from character – demanding to know the identity of Nedda’s lover…

An accomplished veteran of Opera North’s La bohème, La traviata, Macbeth, Faust and Osud, Peter Auty is commanding in the role of Canio – deftly walking the fine line between bombastic company talisman and wrathful, wronged husband – yet the show is Elin Pritchard’s; she chirps prettily through Act One’s ‘Bird Song’ before displaying her full vocal range while mocking Tonio mercilessly, and emoting her desire to run away with her lover Silvio (Phillip Rhodes).

Full marks to director and set designer Charles Edwards for creating a contemporary setting that makes Leoncavallo’s late-nineteenth century offering totally accessible to modern audiences, while remaining true to the integrity of the Italian artistic movement ‘Verismo’.

ON 2

After a mere 20-minute break (after which Phillip Rhodes impressively returned to the stage in yet another lead role), Cavalleria rusticana commences…

At once, we are transported to post-Second World War Poland – a substitute for the opera’s original setting of Sicily – where we find Turiddu (Jonathan Stoughton) in the midst of a love triangle… caught between the woman he loves, Lola (Katie Bray), who is married to Alfio (Phillip Rhodes), and Santuzza (Giselle Allen), the woman he seduced, but then cast aside.

Lola, disillusioned as she is with married life, is indulging in adulterous trysts with Turiddu – much to the agony of the deeply religious Santuzza. When Easter Sunday dawns, Santuzza decides to tell Alfio exactly what unholy acts his wife and Turiddu have been up to…

This is an opera that is going to put your through the emotional wringer. Santuzza’s articulation of her despair takes up more than half of the allotted running time – making it more character-led than story-driven; however, as a demonstration of sheer talent, Giselle Allen’s performance is exemplary.

ON 3

Once again, Charles Edwards’ set design is impeccable – pared back, stark and as raw as the emotions the principals and chorus paint it with.

Praise too for costume designer Gabrielle Dalton, who gets the period detail spot on; finally, a special shout out for the vintage taxi, which makes a reoccurring – and crowd-pleasing – appearance on stage!

None of the above would be possible without the stupendous orchestra of Opera North – led throughout both operas by Tobias Ringborg – as well as the chorus, who combined to offer an Italian extravaganza both for opera aficionados and newcomers to delight in.

‘The Little Greats’ Festival continues at The Lowry with works by Ravel and Janáček, as well as by Gilbert & Sullivan and Leonard Bernstein.

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