Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci


and PAGLIACCI Ruggero Leoncavallo


Review by Polly Hope

Sometimes there are productions of these inseparable twin operas, and playing each with a different work. No go, they function together as a double bill and ENO has been wise to leave them thus.

Both pieces are directed by Richard Jones and designed by Ultz. Naturally they have been updated to somewhere in our childhood. Could be 50s, 60s or even 70s. Hard to tell.

Firstly CAVALLERIA. This is set in some rather run down café bar in south Italy. On the huge stage of the London Coliseum they have built a box with just about room for the grannies in black to trundle about in. I don't get it. This is a huge piece supposedly taking place n the village, or small town, piazza, with the entrance to the church much in evidence. There should be crowds of people milling about and singing their heads off. Instead all the big and wonderful choruses are sung off stage and are barely audible. The great hymn, Christ is Risen, [everything is sung in English at ENO,] gets half the village, packed shoulder to shoulder, in through the bar's swing doors looking lumpen and solid and standing in rows.

Where is the drama in this? The story is much about public life lived out on the streets, and the awfulness of what happens when you do the wrong thing in a small town environment. Also Christian guilt is important and if the role of the church and the peasants concern and belief in their religion. If this is bushed aside we are just left with a grubby little contemporary story. This is Jones' great new idea I suppose.

Cavalleria is a truly great work, all fiery passion and there should be drama oozing from every note as the story twists here and there. The singers sing well enough. The acting is more or less believable, the orchestra is vast, almost Wagnerian in size and the conductor, Edward Gardner, conducts his forces with aplomb.

Result: I felt cheated of Mascagni's youthful masterpiece of verismo opera. He never wrote anything again with such punch. Pity it is reduced to a page in a Sunday tabloid.

Then Pagliacci, again a total winner but this time by Leoncavallo. This works better because it is about theatre people and set in a theatre so we accept the over the top action and sentiments more easily. Now the whole stage is used and there are three sets for the three short acts; outside the stage door, on the stage from behind the scene and on the stage watching the scene. The chorus is now the audience sitting on tip-up seats. It does work.

However once again I cannot weep tears. Nelly, the soubrette, [I told you it was updated,] is frankly not up to her heart wrenching part, though with her black lace mini nightie over pink satin knickers helps her along a bit. Again the singing is more or less okay and the singers do their job and act well enough.

I am afraid us Brits are just lousy at being erotic. Dirty, in a schoolboy way, yes, but heated lust, we no can do. I've thought about this for years, is it because of our climate? Plenty of North Americans can do sexy, think Marilyn Munroe. Scandinavians can manage from time to time, but sometimes I wonder how we ever procreate.

Of course to see these two huge works, and huge they should be, with vast orchestra and tons of money thrown at the production team, [they'll always tell you they are short,] is always a treat. I wasn't bored but would not return for a second visit.

The programme makes the evening worthwhile, packed with information about the composers. Three fine articles concerning verismo opera and even a translation by G.B Shaw of the Verga story that Mascagni used for Cav. If only all programmes were thus. It is a lesson for all opera houses.

ENO must do better. The talent is all here, but how to get them to loosen up and make our hair stand on end. I just don't know.