Leoncavallo - I Pagliacci

Apollo(n) Theatre, Ermoupoli, Syros, Friday July 15 2016

Conductor: Giovanni Pacor. Production: Detlef Soelter. Canio: Piero Giuliacci. Nedda: Eilana Lappalainen. Tonio: Massimiliano Fichera. Beppe: Ioannis Kavouras. Silvio: Joseph Lim. Pan-European Philharmonia. Greek Opera Studio. Ile de France children’s chorus.

Leoncavallo
In the middle of the 19th century, Ermoupoli, capital of Syros in the Cyclades, was a thriving shipbuilding and trading town and a more important port than Piraeus, rich enough to build a small Italian-style, horseshoe-shaped opera house. The Apollo (sometimes Apollon) Theatre was renovated at the turn of the present century, and I found myself invited to Syros for my birthday and to I Pagliacci there the next day.

It was a far better experience than anyone might have feared, a more-than-just-creditable performance, and quite a lot of fun. It was also an appreciable chance to get some idea of what opera in small and relatively remote houses was like back then. The intimacy with the singers (especially when the production, as here, invades the auditorium) makes it a very different experience from opera in gigantic places like the Met or the Bastille, and means soloists with voices that might not survive in New York or Paris can be cast with some success in Syros.

Though I suppose it isn’t logical, I know I’m inclined to be more indulgent and easily-pleased with small companies making the effort to stage operas in cash-strapped venues. My host evidently isn’t, complaining that the small stage was unnecessarily cluttered and that Bob Wilson (no less) would have done a better job by leaving more to the imagination. He was right, though, that the little stage-within-a-stage with its strings of light-bulbs and clown backdrop would have been enough; Nedda’s caravan, on the left, and the painted Italian village square all round, could have been dispensed with and would have left more room for the lively action.

It was a modern-dress production – among other things, no doubt saving money on costumes, though Canio had the apropriate baggy check clown pants and a trailing tailcoat in patches of black and grey and Nedda, once got up as Colombina, was in a red-spotted dress with yellow pigtails and exaggerated makeup. The Prologue was sung in the centre aisle and the chorus started out in the tiered stage-side boxes, waving flags (including the Finnish one, as the ambassador was, it was announced formally by someone from the Town Hall, present) and eventually entered through the house. The acting was sometimes, no doubt deliberately, melodramatic and the chorus movements were no worse (including the kids) than anywhere else in such cramped surroundings.

Massimiliano Fichera was both solid and enthusiastic and Joseph Lim was, if staid (not that there’s much you can do with Silvio), solid too: a pair of sound, well-trained young voices. Piero Giuliacci was a much better Canio than you might have anticipated in the circumstances. And the orchestra was perfectly competent and was even equipped with a proper set of tubular bells. Only Eilana Lappalainen was over the top (no, I didn’t say over the hill…): her voice was loud and squally, making Nedda’s awful bird aria even more chaotic than usual, and she’s a bit mature to be prancing round like a teenage ingénue in yellow pigtails, though she undeniably threw herself into it with near abandon. That didn’t, however, ruin the evening. I enjoyed my birthday treat.

Wenarto stages the tragic finale here.

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