It’s hard to imagine that Cavelleria rusticana and Pagliacci used to be pretty much staple fare in opera houses across the globe, as in recent years they have become something of a rarity. ENO last staged them in the ’80s (directed by Ian Judge) whilst the Royal Opera staged I Pagliacci a few years back on its own, complete with an interval, as a vehicle for Plácido Domingo in a grotesque staging by Franco Zeffirelli.
It was good therefore to see the operas reunited once more, opening ENO’s ’08/’09 season in style. From the opening fortissimo chords of Cavalleria rusticana it was evident that we were in for an evening of musical delights – there was plenty of red meat for the orchestra and musical director Edward Gardner to get their teeth into.
If any director was going to bring these two hoary old operatic warhorses out of mothballs and give them a good dusting down it was going to be Richard Jones. And despite these season openers failing to eclipse some of his more brilliant work, Jones on this sort of form still outstrips most other directors at full throttle.
Subtlety is not a word associated with verismo opera so we got a no-holds barred interpretation with great playing and full-blooded choral singing. Jones mentioned in an interview last week that Cav was the less director-friendly of the two operas so he let the music do most of the talking. Ultz’s set went all-out for atmosphere as he provided a suitably dingy Sicilian town hall circa 1920s in which all the action took place, the claustrophobia allowing Jones to keep a tight rein on the drama. Jane Dutton as a slightly-crazed Santuzza and Peter Auty as a vibrantly Italianate Turiddu shook the rafters with their singing it wasn’t subtle but it was certainly thrilling.
After the interval, the curtain rose not on the prologue of Pagliacci but on the principals from Cav taking their curtain call once again a nice touch which then led into Christopher Purves’ bespectacled stand-up comedian routine as Tony. It needs pointing out that Lee Hall’s translation/version of Pagliacci reworks the title as Comedians and transports us somewhere up North in the 70s in working men’s club-land. It may sound incongruous on paper but it works brilliantly and Richard Jones is in his element here when it comes to black comedy he is second to none. Ultz’s sets are great evocations of the 70s, with the opening scene taking place outside the theatre where we see that Kenny Paxo (Canio), Nelly (Nedda) and Tony (Tonio) are starring in Ding Dong – a kind of Brian Rix farce.
As Kenny, Geraint Dodd is a dead-ringer for Eddie Large and he sings and acts the part wonderfully, slowly becoming more unhinged as jealousy takes hold during the course of the opera. The final scene, the play within the play, is brilliantly realised as we the real audience stare at a split set with the stage audience on the left and the stage on the right. The audience’s reactions to the play are hilarious and wonderfully detailed with everything ending in chaos as the ‘play’ reaches its bloody climax.
Maybe Jones overplayed the comedy a bit, at the expense of the tragedy, but the stagecraft involved was razor-sharp from start to finish. All the singers came across well, with special praise going to Mark Stone’s richly-etched cameo as Woody and Purves’ obsequious Tony. Mary Plazas didn’t seem totally at ease as Nelly but this was ensemble opera at its very best and an auspicious start to the season.