Mascagni | Leoncavallo: Cavalleria rusticana | Pagliacci

English National Opera

London Coliseum 20 September 2008 3 stars

Jane Dutton as Santuzza (Photo © Robert Workman)In a recent interview, Richard Jones made clear his views on the two works that constitute opera's best-loved double-bill, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci: 'one's a conductor's piece and the other's a director's.'

With this new production for English National Opera, with designs by Ultz, Jones' attitude was all too apparent. Mascagni's opera is treated in a simplistic, poorly thought-out and tediously un-engaging way while it is obvious all the creative team's thought has gone into Leoncavallo's work. After Cav's single shoebox set, Pag has three scene changes and although its 1970s setting throws up its fair share of problems regarding consistency with Leoncavallo's conception, these problems have at least all been addressed, even if the solutions found for them are not universally convincing.

Recast as 'Sicilian Revenge', Cavalleria rusticana is updated to between the wars, with the action relocated from the sun-baked square we're used to seeing to the interior of the local food shop, which doubles as café and bar. There are tables and chairs and shelves laden with boxes, to the left we can see the kitchen where Mama Lucia produces broth for the hungry villagers. This is the first problem: although it's an attractive enough set, it's aspace that is ill-suited to the work. Apart from questions as to why in Sicily's sunny climate all the villages should routinely congregate indoors in such a cramped space, it seriously blunts the significance of Santuzza's ostracism. The church that is mentioned so often in the text should loom over her as a constant reminder of her shame; the fact that the Easter Hymn is all delivered indoors makes little sense, but we also lose the feeling of Santuzza's plight as being painfully public when she's able to seek refuge behind closed doors.

Sean O'Brien's translation brings little new to the work, making few concessions to the updated setting and failing to eradicate a number of unconvincing couplets and some awkward syntax. One change comes with the fact, due to advances of technology, that Alfio has swapped his cart and horses for the modern equivalent. As such his aria becomes a faintly comic paean to his delivery van, answered unconvincingly by the chorus with 'he's a lucky man, who drives a loaded van.' However, it is the director's obvious lack of belief in the work's quality as a drama that is most detrimental. The main characters have obviously had some broad suggestions as to how to act on stage but there doesn't seem to have been much in the way of specific instruction (Alfio's manic stabbing of the door before the 'Intermezzo' was an unfortunate exception). Worst of all is the fact that at no point does one identify or sympathise with Turiddu, who starts knocking back the booze at his first appearance and never comes across as anything but childish and selfish. The decision to introduce a role for his brother, a cerebral palsy sufferer, who watches in silence until he announces the death at the close, struck me as at best unnecessary and, at worst, a cynical attempt to heighten the audience's sympathy. The introduction of a Mafioso element in the final scene, on the other hand, was a confusing afterthought.

The half-baked production would be easier to overlook were the musical values of the production more than serviceable. Jones describes it as a conductor's opera, and although Edward Gardner elicited some powerful climaxes from his forces (with the ENO chorus on good form, the Easter Hymn was properly stirring) his conducting was characterised by an impatience to get from one number to the next, and a lack of overall sweep, which left one with the inaccurate impression that Mascagni's score is little more than a series of set pieces, poorly cobbled together. There was no questioning the commitment of Jane Dutton's acting as Santuzza and her mezzo is a big, often impressive instrument. However, in this context she never really engaged the emotions and sometimes had problems controlling the voice. Peter Auty's Turiddu had some moments of strain but he sang solidly throughout and threw himself gamely into the unsympathetic characterisation. Roland Wood's suave Alfio and Fiona Murphy's seductive Lola completed the picture but no-one on stage was able to turn this into anything other than a drab, half-hearted and too obviously unaffectionate treatment of the work.

Pagliacci (Photo © Robert Workman)Leoncavallo's opera is treated to a production that is, in comparison, wildly original and imaginative. In Lee Hall's version (pointedly listed as an 'adaptation' as opposed to O'Brien's mere 'translation') we now have 'The Comedians' and the whole action is updated to the '70s and transported to the North of England.

Tony has a comb-over and delivers his prologue in a nasty suit before the curtain rises to reveal an impressive recreation of the outside of a theatre. The whole action now revolves around the performance of a new play, 'Ding Dong,' and its stars, Kenny 'Mr Paxo' Evans (Canio), Tony O'Sullivan (Tonio) and Nelly Scrimshaw (Nedda).

Of course, we're a million miles away from the Mediterranean setting of the original so the lazy shepherd music that pervades the chorus as the crowd disperses is rather incongruous with their new words: 'we'd better go back and put the tea on, we'll be back when they've lit the neon.' In addition, Nelly has to sing her aria indoors after the sun floods in through an unlikely, fifteen foot high window back stage and some of the language these comedians employ – 'you meretricious harlot,' 'sweet holy Virgin,' or Nelly calling Tony a 'rattlesnake' – still seems like a hangover from a much earlier version of the text, very much out of place with the other parts of the translation, not to mention the more realistic expletives employed in the final minutes. 

However, it was a relief in many ways to see a production that had evidently been thought about a lot and an updating of the action which, despite these little issues, managed to convince by dint of its humour and cleverness. The effort and thought (and money) that had gone into Ultz's designs for this work was also far more apparent and the four distinct sets that were used were handsome and detailed. I particularly liked the cut-out view of all four dressing rooms used for Kenny's 'Put on the greasepaint' ('Vesti la giubba') and the split stage for the final scene – the audience on one side, the show they and we are watching on the other – was skilfully executed.

Pagliacci (Photo © Robert Workman)The cast had benefitted from much more in the way of direction and all acted convincingly. Christopher Purves's Tony was stretched by the Prologue's high tessitura but settled into his character well, whether slouching in his Y-fronts smoking in his dressing room or as a sleazy caricature in the show itself. The Northern comic persona didn't seem to come quite so easily to Geraint Dodd, as Kenny, but he made a good stab of it and produced some singing of impressive power, rising to a moving final scene. Mary Plazas played the cheeky comedienne well but also sang with passion in her aria and duet. Her lover in this version is Woody the stage carpenter, played with a hint of Robin Asquith by Mark Stone, who was ardent but failed to bring much subtlety to the role, pushing too hard much of the time. In the pit, Ed Gardner again delivered the goods in the big dramatic moments but too often failed to let the music breathe in its lyrical passages. As such, we lost much of the detail in the accompaniment to a swift rendition of Nelly's aria and didn't get the chance to linger in the duet or savour the melody of Kenny's final aria.

This was a strangely unbalanced evening and one which betrayed unforgivably low opinion of Mascagni on behalf of the director. This Pagliacci, all but stripped of its Italian flavour, will not be to everybody's taste, but at least it's a good show. That's a lot more than can be said for poor old Cav.

By Hugo Shirley

Cav & Pag is at the Coliseum on 26 & 28 (matinee only) September and 3, 7, 11, 15, 17, 21 & 23 October
For details see the ENO website

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