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Inhibited by Cleverness

'Cav and Pag' at English National Opera,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


'Cav and Pag', the double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci was once a staple of the operatic repertoire. But in recent decades performances have declined. The Royal Opera House has not performed the double bill since the late 1980s though they have performed one of the operas singly. One of the reasons for this is perhaps that both operas share a strong vein of sentiment running though them. Though both were somewhat revolutionary in that they treated ordinary people rather than the upper classes, this verismo style is anything but realistic, and the operas are just as stylised as 19th century opera with the addition of a vein of sentimental romanticism about the lower classes.

For its new production English National Opera has turned to Richard Jones and designer Ultz to try and revivify the double bill. In staging each of the operas in radically different settings, Jones seemed to be working hard (perhaps too hard) to undermine the sentiment in the operas and make them a little more basic and gritty.

Jones and Ultz set Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana in Sicily in the 1950s. In lieu of the town square described in the libretto, Jones and Ultz presented us with a rather cramped community centre type of place complete with a kitchen and all the action took place here. This meant that some of the ensemble scenes became rather crowded; but this is a feature of Jones' production style, cropping up in various guises, notably his ENO production of The Trojans. The Easter Hymn ceased to be a moment of pageantry and became a crowded communal event.

Peter Auty and Jane Dutton as Turiddu and Santuzza both had large, slightly old-fashioned voices which were perfect for the roles. Auty's open, Italianate tenor had a generous sound: he brought passion and intensity to Turiddu. Dutton's mezzo-soprano was perhaps a little too blowsy under pressure but like Auty, hers was a big, generous voice. And with it she conveyed Santuzza's feelings vividly. Her set piece aria came off well and was very touching.

Roland Wood as Alfio beautifully conveyed Jones' conception of the character as a Mafioso. Wood is a musical artist and his Alfio was finely voiced. But his voice was smaller and less Italianate than the other two. He conveyed Alfio's control but lacked a sense of the simmering rage beneath the surface.

Fiona Murphy looked the part as the sultry Lola. She sang lusciously with a rich voice, though again without a real Italianate sense of passion. Kathleen Wilkinson was wonderful as Mama Lucia. Buttoned up, crisp and short but not entirely unsympathetic.

Edward Gardner and the ENO orchestra accompanied with passion and commitment, giving a strong well-shaped performance. Gardner let the music flow and relished its melodramatic nature.

The commitment of Jones and his cast gave us a strong, highly controlled performance with good musical values.

With a few changes and a little opening out, it would have been possible to imagine doing Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci using the same set, giving both operas the unifying sense of the same community.

But Jones chose a different route. Whereas Cavalleria Rusticana was well translated by Sean O'Brien, for I Pagliacci Lee Hall made a new English adaptation. This set the opera as a group of comedians appearing in an 'oops there go my trousers' type of farce in Northern England. Ultz provided a spectacular set, which at various times showed us the outside of the theatre, back stage, the stage itself plus the auditorium. In theory replacing the commedia del arte play with a farce was a good idea. But Jones and Ultz seemed to be a little too pleased with themselves and their own cleverness.

For the opening scenes, there was a strong pull between the naturalism of the setting and Leoncavallo's stylised writing for the chorus, though Ultz had obviously had a great time designing the 1970s period costumes.

Christopher Purves as Tony (Tonio) delivered the prologue well, but it felt as though the music had also been transported to cool Northern England. His performance was musical but lacked the thrill which a great performance brings. Purves gave a strong account of the role, but Tony/Tonio was somehow diminished by the requirement that he be a side kick to Geraint Dodd's Kenny (Canio). The idea being that the two of them formed a comic double act. (The programme book was illustrated with a picture of Little and Large.)

Dodd's Kenny (Canio) was a little inhibited by the cleverness of the production. It was only when Jones gave him time to pause that his character really registered, such as the quiet scene in his dressing room when he delivers Vesti la giubba. This was thrilling and profoundly moving in contrast to the rest of Dodd's performance. Dodd has a large voice and singing in English he managed to sound quite Welsh. He sounded lovely, but generally failed to communicate the intensity of Kenny/Canio's feelings. This was most problematic at the end when we must really feel the contrast between the play and Kenny/Canio's acting out his real feelings towards Nelly (Nedda). I never felt this, and I think it was the main casualty of Jones' over-clever production.

Mary Plazas was a little light-voiced to make my ideal Nelly (Nedda), but she is a stylish artist and captured her character's wish for freedom. Jones however rather compromised this by turning her aria into something of a production number. He had Plazas sing it backstage as if rehearsing, doing a dance routine complete with a cane, rather than using the piece to establish the character's real feelings.

Mark Stone as Woody/Silvio, with a dodgy wig, and Christopher Turner (Brian/Beppe) provided admirable support. Gardner and the ENO orchestra provided strong accompaniment. But this was a performance which rather missed the heart of Leoncavallo's opera.

This was an interesting attempt by ENO and Richard Jones to bring new life to the traditional double bill of Cav and Pag. On this showing they were only partially successful.

Copyright © 1 October 2008 Robert Hugill, London UK


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