Opera Hong Kong’s “Cav & Pag”

Louise Kwong, Hao Xingwa and Sun Li in I Pagliacci Louise Kwong, Hao Xingwa and Sun Li in I Pagliacci

By focusing on young singers, Opera Hong Kong’s summer semi-staged productions serve as one of the better crystal balls on Hong Kong’s operatic development. These late-August performances are the college basketball to the larger productions of the operatic NBA in the Spring and Fall, in which, if one is lucky, excitement and atmosphere can more than compensate for the occasional youthful lack of polish.

Opera Hong Kong’s just-completed (and woefully short) two-night run of the one-act double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci provided many such moments. In something of a departure from previous years, this production paired the young Hong Kong singers with somewhat more experienced singers from China.

Sun Li’s Tonio was unrelentingly odious.

Although Cavalleria Rusticana nominally revolves around the “rustic chivalry” of the title, it is Santuzza, the woman forsaken by Turiddu for the more seductive Lola, who provides the possibilities of depth of characterization. When Santuzza is sung by a mezzo-soprano of a certain âge, it can seem seem that she really was merely anonymous, temporary comfort for the soldier, who, upon his return, found Lola already married to the local wagoneer Alfio. A Santuzza sung by a young, bright voice can give an entirely different cast to the character. Bobbie Zhang’s portrayal was heart-rending and entirely believable, in gesture as much as through voice. The difficulty of the role merely added to the emotion and tension, making Turiddu in comparison seem feckless rather than virile.

But I Pagliacci—the play-within-a-play story of a troupe of traveling players—was the more explicitly theatrical of the two operas. Italian director Enrico Castiglione gave the opera’s famous last line, “La commedia è finita”, to the libidinous assistant Tonio rather than leaving it with the betrayed husband and murderer Canio. This has been done before, but it emphasized Tonio’s role as a malevolent manipulator. Indeed, Chinese baritone Sun Li’s Tonio was one of the most unrelentingly odious portrayals I have ever seen in this or any opera. Canio—sung by Hao Xingwa, a recent product of San Francisco’s Merola programme and an appealing, Italianate tenor—was, despite violent tendencies of his own, lent some additional dignity by comparison.

Chen Yong and Louise Kwong
Chen Yong and Louise Kwong

Louise Kwong, hardly an unknown quantity anymore, sparkled as Nedda, Canio’s straying wife. In a commendable outing in the other night’s performance, Li Yang displayed unexpected skill as a mime, greatly adding to the the role-within-a-role portrayal of Nedda’s alter-ego Colombina.

The otherwise small part of Peppe usually consists of little more than a single affecting aria sung to Colombina in the play shortly before the fatal denouement. Castiglione expanded the role out, making Peppe—or rather his in-play alter-ego Arlecchino—an almost perpetual presence. Local tenor Chen Yong played this role, mostly in mime alla commedia dell’arte, with vaudevillian verve.

Peter Gordon, editor of the Asian Review of Books, translated subtitles for this production.