For a one-hit composer, we hear rather a lot of Pietro Mascagni. His reputation rests on his 1890 debut Cavalleria Rusticana, the one-act Sicilian shocker that’s usually yoked (not always to its advantage) to Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. But in recent years we’ve also seen the cod-medieval car crash of Isabeau, and a couple of outings for Iris, an opera that fuses orientalist opulence with tentacle porn, but not in a good way. In fairness, there have been winners too: Opera Holland Park revived L’amico Fritz in July, and this sun-kissed romcom about an Alsatian cherry farmer slipped down like a Negroni with audiences thirsty for a strong, sweet triple-shot of escapism, verismo-style.
And now here’s Zanetto (1896) to confirm my mounting suspicion that Mascagni is at his best when he’s trying least. It’s a bittersweet one-acter with a cast of two, and guess what? It’s a gem. Everyone knows that the juiciest sections of any romantic opera are the blissful meeting and the tearful parting, so Mascagni simply cuts out the middle bit. The widowed hotelier Silvia meets the itinerant minstrel Zanetto, and they dance briefly around each other’s feelings before concluding that it won’t work. Mascagni’s signature weakness — the way he keeps reaching for a great melody, but never quite finds it — becomes a strength: a musical metaphor for a love that’s extinguished before it ever catches light.
Lysanne van Overbeek’s urban outdoor staging for Barefoot Opera reduced the orchestra to an electric keyboard and a double bass. The car alarms and helicopters of Kingsland High Street were frequently deafening and yet the emotion powered through, thanks largely to the luminous singing and sensitive acting of the two principals, Lizzie Holmes (Silvia) and Emma Roberts (Zanetto, a trouser role). Zanetto was the second part of a double bill, and on paper the choice of companion piece looked bizarre — a stripped-down version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, with the same cast and set plus funky twangs from an electric bass.
In the event, it was a masterstroke, with the stark emotional binaries of Gluck’s classical tragedy setting the parameters for Silvia and Zanetto’s flickering passions. Roberts played Orpheus with intense pathos, singing in majestic, stricken phrases before strolling into Mascagni’s world in the same costume — still a wandering musician and charmer, but now with an air of mischief. Holmes sang Euridice with an impervious, sunlit poise before transforming herself into the all-too-vulnerable Silvia. This time, she was the one left bereft, and while her voice was just as radiant, her acting was even more compelling — she seemed to age before our eyes, through her facial expressions alone.
At the very end, Zanetto-Orpheus scribbled in a notepad as Silvia-Euridice collapsed in tears: the eternal artist, coolly cultivating his sliver of ice. Perhaps he’d taken lessons from Amore, Gluck’s allegorical third character, whose brilliance laughingly undercut the tragedy (Katie Blackwell, billed as the stage manager, sang the role at short notice and knocked it for six). Anyway, a terrific night of opera as real human drama, with plenty to think about as you picked your way out through a Dalston Lane police cordon and back to the Overground.
As for the sensational Proms debut of John Wilson’s new orchestra, the Sinfonia of London, I keep thinking of the Pixar cartoon Ratatouille — the bit where the monstrous critic weeps as his heart cracks and he remembers why he cared so much in the first place. This was something like that: an orchestra so thrillingly alive with the sheer glory of it all that hearing them play felt like being a teenager in love. Like Simon Rattle, Wilson adores every detail and inner voice of the music he conducts. But unlike Rattle, he never lets it obstruct the bigger picture. Wilson’s other orchestra (the one that carries his name) is rightly famous for its virtuosity and rhythmic verve. With the Sinfonia of London, he applies that same energy on a symphonic scale.
This was the Sinfonia’s first public appearance (its recordings have already won awards), and Wilson had chosen a programme with a broadly Viennese theme. Francesca Chiejina sang Berg’s ‘Seven Early Songs’ in a voice of molten gold while the orchestra floated and glimmered around her. Ravel’s La Valse began on the edge of audibility, and developed a momentum so cataclysmic that it made The Rite of Spring seem fluffy. And then Wilson conducted Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp — a huge postwar outpouring of anguish and loss, so ferociously difficult to perform that until this Prom I don’t think I’d ever heard a completely successful live interpretation (not that there are many opportunities to judge). It’s impossible to say if this was the single greatest performance that Korngold’s symphony has ever received, but it certainly felt like it.
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