Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci

Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo
English National Opera
The London Coliseum

Production graphic

Cav and Pag, born two years apart, yet as inseparable as Siamese twins and invariably performed together, are the most famous double bill in the operatic repertoire.

These two realistic one-act working class crimes passionels, which share a common theme of love, betrayal and murder, have been updated to the 20th century in Richard Jones’s production.

The 21-year-old Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), true to the Sicilian code of honour, is dramatic in an unsubtle and exhibitionistic manner and the romantic score is in direct contradiction to its new and squalid setting. Instead of the familiar village square the action is set inside a bare community hall, which also serves as a store.

The chorus (in excellent voice) spends much of its time off-stage; but when they are all on stage, they are farcically cramped. I haven’t seen anything quite as crowded since the classic ship’s cabin sketch in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera.

Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892), adapted by Lee Hall, is set during a provincial tour. The characters are no longer clowns but comedians appearing in a popular show called Ding Dong. The commedia dell’arte farce has been turned into a very crude and old-fashioned music hall bedroom farce sketch.

In the final scene the stage is divided down the middle: stage left is the stage on which the comedians are performing; stage right is the auditorium with the audience watching aghast as the farce turns into a real-life tragedy.

The conductor is Edward Gardner. Mascagni and the impassioned singing of Peter Auty, and especially Jane Dutton, have a far greater musical impact than Leoncavallo and his singers.

Pagliacci is chiefly enjoyable for Jones’ witty staging, the amusing use of the chorus, and Ultz’s clever designs, which embrace four different locations and which, on the night I went, caused the scene-shifters serious problems and an inordinate delay in one change-over.

Cav and Pag are well worth catching.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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