A caravan park from the seventies was the set for Freeze Frame Opera’s new production of Pagliacci. Director Rachel McDonald had updated Leoncavallo’s 19th century opera about a comic theatre troupe to a group of surf-loving hippies camped on a beach in Italy. Her concept suited Leoncavallo’s verismo or ‘real life’ style of opera writing, turning his characters into people the audience on opening night recognised with delight.

Harriet O’Shannessy (Nedda) and Paul O’Neill (Canio) (in front of caravan) camping with their mates. Photos c Robbie Harold.

A vintage caravan sat on the Camelot Theatre stage and around it a group of friends were frying sausages and swapping fishing yarns. It was quintessentially Aussie and trademark FFO, whose productions (La Boheme, Opera at the Movies) have been marked by a warm invitation to participate.

The cosy venue meant we could smell the cigarette smoke and almost taste the BBQ chicken in the immersive set design (Robbie Harold design and Geoff Glencross lighting). Music director Tommaso Pollio was sitting arms reach away at a grand piano and thundering out the orchestral score with sparkle and aggression.

The updated storyline required extensive freedom with the libretto plus some extra introduction. A chorus member welcomed the audience in Act One, explaining that this was a safe place for men who needed to deal with painful feelings. It became evident he was referring to the leader of the group Canio who discovered his wife Nedda is having an affair. Paul O’Neill was in glorious voice as Canio, singing with real torment in the famous aria Vesti la giubba. He absentmindedly opened a can of beer, clinching the Aussie male stereotype as he sang ‘laugh at the pain that is poisoning you’.

Big feelings also erupted from Michael Lewis as Tonio, the grim toilet cleaner who lusted after Nedda and was firmly rejected by her. Initially insignificant, his jealous manipulation ultimately fuelled the tragic ending. Lewis swamped the audience with his luxurious baritone which would have been beautiful if it weren’t for the terrifying darkness in his tone.

O’Shannessy (Nedda) fends off  the approaches of Michael Lewis (Tonio)

Harriet O’Shannessy was both feisty and fearful as Nedda, singing dreamily of the birds who ‘get to go where they want’ in Stridono lassù. McDonald’s inspired twist was casting Nedda’s lover as a lesbian. Sivlio became Silvia and Caitlin Cassidy was outstanding with her rich mezzo voice and tender passion for Nedda. Their duet was intimate and utterly convicting.

In Act Two the ‘play within a play’ was enacted as a local Talent Show with voting cards were handed out to the audience. The theatre troupe got off to a good start; Jun Zhang was hilarious as Arlecchino, his voice as silky as his dressing gown as he courted Columbina (Nedda) singing translations like ‘Oh tibblenits, your tender Spunkadoodle is pining for you’.

Talent Show voting card

With the arrival of Canio things began to get out of control. Leoncavallo’s opera has at its centre the objectification of women and it wasn’t hard to make the #metoo links as Canio bellowed: “I am a man and I’m going to get what a man needs.”

As usual Freeze Frame Opera have taken the beating heart of opera with all its passion and humanity and put it straight into the lap of the audience. This is a fabulous and convicting night of theatre and there are still some tickets remaining – don’t miss it.

Pagliacci runs until Saturday 16th June at Camelot Theatre Mosman Park.