Scottish Opera at ‘Paisley Opera House’,
***** (5 stars)
Raw passion burst out under the suitably burning Paisley sky – even the weather obligingly replicated Calabria’s searing heat and blinding sun as we walked from the nearby railway station to the enormous multi-pointed marquee into which people were streaming. Inside were many delights to sample before the show began – hats and costumes to don, face-painting and fortune-telling, fairground games, a handbell concert and, for a few lucky ticket holders, the opportunity to conduct the brightly-dressed Scottish Opera orchestra in Rossini’s William Tell overture, or Bizet’s Carmen. A young lad conducted Rossini most capably with his sword, while an initially terrified young woman slowly gained in confidence as she found the orchestra following every gesture of her baton until she was obviously having the time of her life: if Scottish Opera have any sense, they will arrange an evening of “come and wave a stick at our orchestra” to swell their coffers – who wouldn’t pay to have the opportunity to conduct such a wonderful crew?
The opera itself is a play within a play: a group of travelling players come to town, escorted by a procession of local people – in this case the good folk of Paisley celebrating their Sma’ Shot Festival with a motley collection of banners, some very home-made in appearance, one in particular superbly embroidered. The Prologue promises us real emotion, not crocodile tears – “it’s an actual real-life story” – and the first act sets up the drama. Nedda is married to the violently jealous Canio but in love with local lad Silvio: fellow-player Tonio loves her from afar, but when he tells her of his love she mocks and cruelly rejects him. He threatens vengeance, and when she claws his face to prevent him touching her, he promises “you’ll pay for this”. Silvio begs Nedda to stay with him – “the Festival is over, but please don’t go”, and she, though terrified of Canio’s jealousy, finally agrees. Silvio leaves and Canio appears just in time to overhear Nedda’s parting words. Instantly his worst suspicions are realised and he threatens to slit Nedda’s throat: she escapes and he is left to pour out his rage at the contrast between the pain consuming him and the laughing face his clown character is forced to assume – ridi, Pagliaccio: the show must go on even when the clown’s heart is being torn apart.
In the second act, the players have assumed their characters in the play. Nedda is Columbina, awaiting the arrival of Arlecchino while her husband Pagliaccio is away. Tonio isTaddeo, the Mr Punch-like hunchback, who brings in the dinner she intends to share with Arlecchino. Pagliaccio returns unexpectedly: Taddeo instead of helping the ‘lovers’ hide prevents their escape, while Silvio, in the audience, reminds Nedda of her promise to meet him. Canio, realising that he must be Nedda’s lover, stabs his wife and then Silvio, while the gloating Tonio tells the audience la commedia è finita – the comedy is over.
The audience relished the thrill and immediacy of being part of the performance: we were standing around, listening to the orchestra play the overture when The Prologue invited us to watch the real drama that would be played out before us, raising a laugh with his ending “here goes: turn off your mobiles!” Sounds came from outside the marquee – a huge bass drum called us to move nearer as the procession came in, led by the players [Canio with the drum, Nedda on stilts, someone else in a giant plastic ball] and followed by the townspeople with their banners. Suddenly half the ‘audience’ burst into song, ran to join the procession and encouraged us all to follow. Canio invited us to the show and was mobbed for autographs and selfies before the villagers followed the bells that were calling them to church, with kids running about and singers inviting audience members to go with them. As their singing died away, Nedda could be heard from another part of the marquee, expressing her anxiety and wishing that she could be free as the birds singing as they fly above her: and the real-life drama began to unfold before us [conveniently on top of a ‘caravan’ so that everyone could see], mounting in emotional intensity and finally exploding in Canio’s passionate soliloquy.
The chorus brought us back to the second half, obligingly bringing in a number of benches to set in front of the ‘theatre’ and give some of us a welcome rest. Tonio pulled aside the curtain to reveal a delightfully skewed doll’s house set with a giant table set for two, and a painted doll-like Columbina awaiting her lover. Arlecchino sang her a delightful serenade from an Arcadian hammock, while bubbles wafted all around: Taddeo brought in a gigantic hot dog for the lovers to share – and then things went horribly wrong…
The audience was initially stunned at the sudden, violent ending, but quickly recovered and burst into tremendous applause and cheering. This truly extraordinary evening brought many of us into closer contact than ever previously to singers and orchestra in full flow, involved us more deeply in the emotions of the players, and made us a part of the action. My companions and I had the good fortune to meet the guest principal cello and one of the other string players on our way home, and could not only thank them for their contribution to the evening’s entertainment, but learn that they had as much fun playing for us as we had listening to them: the immediacy of the experience worked both ways, the interaction of players and audience heightening the experience for both parties.
All the principals were excellent – Ronald Samm and Anna Patalong made their debuts with Scottish Opera as Canio and Nedda; Samuel Dale Johnson [Silvio] and Robert Hayward [Tonio] and Alasdair Elliot [Beppe/ Arlecchino] made welcome returns – but for me the outstanding singers were the community chorus, who had worked incredibly hard over many months to learn not only the notes and the words, but how to perform these, with enormous enthusiasm, while moving around and interacting with the audience, welcoming us and inviting us into the action. So many people at Scottish Opera have worked incredibly hard to create this mammoth community enterprise: they deserve paeans of praise, and I hope that this is not just a one-off, but the start of something tremendous.
Scottish Opera at ‘Paisley Opera House’, Run Ended