Director and librettist: Ashley Pearson
Musical direction: Aleksandra Myslek
Opera on Location is now in its ninth year. The company has established itself as a jewel in Sheffield’s cultural crown and its ambitious and unique productions have challenged audiences of opera lovers, neophytes and everyone in between. The company has strived to bring opera into a firm reality, giving operas hundreds of years old a home in the present day. The company name “Opera on Location” alludes to their metamorphic ability to give great art a place in our modern culture. Therefore, staging a production in a traditional theater space might seem drastic for this unorthodox troupe, and exploring the veristic style of opera seems to run counter to their grand ambition. Verismo refers to a style of opera criticism that focuses on more realistic subject matter (think fewer fairy queens and more jealous rivals), however, true to form, Opera on Location has found a way to bring together the micro and the macro in this new imagination. , an opera the fuses Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni and Pagliacci by Leoncavallo.
By mixing these two operas, a new production was conceived. The “Pagliacci theater troupe” is preparing a new production and we have been invited to a public rehearsal (a show that follows the plot of Cavalleria Rusticana). As this is an entirely new production, audiences would not necessarily benefit from knowing the two original operas, but heed my words, buy a program. Even with this roadmap, the route is difficult to navigate. As with Pagliacci, we begin metatheatrically with the director’s address to the audience (delivered with crystal clarity by Aidan Edwards) in which we are reminded that life may reflect art but what we see is fiction. Leading Lady Nedda is married to Canio but is involved with co-star Silvio. After being exposed by Weinstein-esque director Tonio, the show must begin, so ends the Pagliacci of it and so begins the Cavalleria Rusticana, set in World War II. Why this setting was chosen isn’t immediately obvious, but the period clothing helps to delineate the two opera houses.
The second act is followed by an epilogue where the realities really fade away. The stage manager has to step in due to the small number of people in the business and Nedda (now playing Santuzza) begins to let out her previous professionalism as real life seeps into the scene. Without revealing any spoilers, the show begins to take a turn and even the actors are taken aback and ask out loud “Are they still acting?”
A small cast does well, playing at least two roles each. As this is a new production, one wonders if more could have been done to allocate stage time as the company is unevenly balanced with some talent being wasted for long stretches of the show. Fiona Hymns and Gareth Lloyd do well to carry the weight of playing lead roles in two operas at once. With such convoluted action, audiences benefit from Aidan Edwards’ clarity and generous performance.
Once again, Aleksandra Myslek is at the musical helm and in this production has a prominent seat in the center at the back of the stage where she is prominent throughout. It’s a wonderful touch because not only does she perform with exquisite detail and sensitive interpretation, but watching her perform is a joy to behold. Completely captivating.
It’s an incredibly stylistic production with plenty of artistic moments that, while visually arresting, don’t always benefit the plot. One of those moments where the female cast members all stand in the back of the stage and get naked, seemingly for no reason, is quite shocking and does nothing to help, which is already quite a thoughtful plot.
The ideas are bold but often not necessarily well executed. By exploring the play in an acting motif, there is so much potential (Mischief Theater showed us the limitless possibilities of bringing your stage manager into the show). Here, we don’t always know when we are in the “room” or the reality of the characters. This may be deliberately confusing as the series intends to explore the blurry line between fact and fiction, but if we don’t know what we should believe, it can dilute the stakes. Yes, the character pours out, but does he just play?
Perhaps the best approach is to not overthink it and enjoy what is a musically beautiful and often visually rich performance.
Until August 27, 2022