Opera review: Pagliacci

The huge-voiced Anna Patalong as Nedda, ably supported by Ronald Samm and Samuel Dale Johnson
The huge-voiced Anna Patalong as Nedda, ably supported by Ronald Samm and Samuel Dale Johnson
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WHOEVER dreamed up the idea of staging Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in a tent in a Paisley sports field (officially named Paisley Opera House for the occasion), using local adults and children as well as the professional Scottish Opera cast, struck pure gold. This verismo lollipop – refreshed by Bill Bankes-Jones’ judiciously contemporised English translation and brilliantly vital walkabout production – was just the ticket for the fairground atmosphere created around it.

Paisley Opera House ****

It was a glorious evening for Thursday’s opener. An hour before the show the tent was heaving with festive family activity, from face-painting to Punch and Judy shows, hand bell ringers to Seonaid the donkey – there was even a chance for the lucky few to conduct Scottish Opera Orchestra. Then, almost without notice, the real show began. Or did it?

The magic of this production is the blurring of reality. Yes, Tonio (solidly and alluringly although at times a little indistinctly sung by Robert Hayward) bursts out from a central stage to proclaim the entertainment has begun, but before long chorus members spread anonymously within the audience burst into action, singing and beckoning punters to where the action is happening next

The show moves to every conceivable nook and cranny of the geometrically complex tent, so we feel unavoidably part of the performance, which in itself is physically as fast and furious as the emotional journey that leads to Canio’s/Pagliaccio’s consumed jealousy and the onstage murder of his cheating wife Nedda and her lover Silvio.

That manic act, part of the play within a play, is all the more hard-hitting when we have been so effectively drawn into the performance ourselves.

Surprisingly, the canvas venue is an acoustical miracle. When did this house orchestra (under its music director Stuart Stratford) ever sound so fresh, radiant and palpably involved? Highly visible on a side stage, it’s physical release from the customary sunken pit is liberation personified. No matter where the action is, the sound (and synchronicity) is bang on.

As Canio, Ronald Samm is a theatrical tour de force, a vile, spitting presence that compensates for the odd roughness in his voice. Anna Patalong’s Nedda is both sensuous and chilling, the clarity of her diction sometimes falling victim to the hugeness of her voice. Samuel Dale Johnson’s Silvio – costumed as a contemporary stage hand – is highly engaging. Alasdair Elliott injects infectious character into Beppe/Arlecchino.

Opera in a tent? Let’s have much more of it.

KEN WALTON