The opera canon has been under fire of late, as it often directly contends with contemporary values and norms. And for good reason: many persistent themes portrayed across the genre are asynchronous with modern storytelling. As much is true for the classic double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.  Whilst WA Opera presented a greatly compelling and impassioned performance of the duo, it was difficult to ignore the consistent themes of violence towards women inherent in the libretti. Featuring an excellent and cohesive cast, the evening proved to be operatically entertaining, but thematically unsettling.

Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci

Paul O’Neill, Brigitte Heuser, and the cast of Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo © James Rogers.

Cavalleria Rusticana is driven by the inner conflict of Santuzza, and this conflict was at the fore in Ashlyn Tymms’ performance of the heroine. From the beginning, Tymms conveyed the character’s depth fantastically, both through her voice and her movements. In particular, the scene where the excommunicated woman soliloquises in front of the church during Easter mass was particularly excellent, especially combined with Donn Byrnes’ lighting design. Just before this point however, a recording of the chorus’ Regina Coeli was used, assumedly to give the impression of an off-stage choir without diminishing the numbers and sound of those on-stage. On its own this was fine but was a bit of a jolt when the singers on stage joined in, altogether sounding quite disjointed. 

The rest of Cav’s principal cast did a superb job, and it was especially a joy to see Nicole Youl as Mamma Lucia and Simon Meadows as Alfio. Paul O’Neill was entirely convincing as Turiddu, so much so that it felt slightly odd to be applauding such a loathsome character at the end of the work, especially since O’Neill has played a host of traditionally heroic characters with the company as of late.

Pagliacci requires performers to add an extra layer of theatrics, given its take on the concept of a play within an opera. The cast of Pag accomplished this with ease, managing to contrast the dramatic and devastating verismo of the real opera against the slapstick buffa style of the commedia dell’arte performance within it. The effectiveness of this contrast made the tragedy all the more impactful. Emma Matthews, in her debut as Nedda was particularly adept at this. Her voice was malleable to whatever emotion required of her, and she seemed to be right in her element, easily winning over the audience to Nedda’s plight. 

Paul O’Neill and Simon Meadows were completely transformed from their Cav roles, even shifting their vocal tones to better reflect their new characters. It was especially impressive to see Meadows go from the confident and imposing baritone of Alfio to slimy Tonio. Matthew Lester was a good Beppe, his serenade as Harlequin being concurrently beautiful and comedic. Christopher Tonkin proved heroic as Silvio, his rich baritone injecting an air of true romance into the opera.

Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci

Matthew Lester, Paul O’Neill, Emma Matthews, Simon Meadows. Photo © James Rogers.

Witnessing Cav and Pag from a 21st century context, it is very difficult to ignore the consistent violence directed towards women in multiple forms. The central characters of both works are women, and yet, women are treated as property, ultimately belonging to the men who claim to love them. Nedda’s plight in particular has stark parallels with the stories of women experiencing domestic violence situations heard all too regularly in the news. Canio cares more about learning the name of Nedda’s lover, who has ‘embarrassed and shamed’ him, than the life of the woman he supposedly loves. The audience are led to empathise with his anger and grief in the aria ‘Vesti la giubba,’ as if his overall murderous actions are justified. Silvio encourages and pressures Nedda to escape with him, even though he knows this will definitely put her in danger. Even Beppe, who is a friend to Nedda and well aware of Canio’s violent behaviours tells her: ‘he’s violent but a good man,’ and doesn’t interfere when the situation is clearly going downhill. 

Whilst the operas are musically interesting, it’s genuinely exhausting to consistently see women in these stories traumatised, abused and murdered, whether for the sake of male character development or dramatic tragedy. The operatic canon is in desperate need of material which more accurately reflects women and other minorities, and which doesn’t just treat them like convenient plot devices. If this means retiring works like Cav and Pag to make way for these significant changes, then so be it: perhaps this will attract the new audiences ageing art forms like opera need to persist.

The thematic issues aside, WA Opera’s production of Cav and Pag proved a scintillating and compelling performance, which allowed the talented cast to display their best acting in addition to their singing.

West Australian Opera’s Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci runs at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, until 24 July.