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Jane Dutton as Santuzza [Photo by Robert Workman]
08 Oct 2008

Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci — English National Opera, London Coliseum

For the opening of the 2008/09 season at ENO, Richard Jones has teamed up with two separate theatrical writers, Sean O'Brien and Lee Hall, to create unique new versions of the repertoire's most famous double bill.

Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana
Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci

Cavalleria rusticana: Turiddù (Peter Auty); Santuzza (Jane Dutton); Mamma Lucia (Kathleen Wilkinson); Alfio (Roland Wood); Lola (Fiona Murphy)

Pagliacci: Nedda (Mary Plazas); Canio (Geraint Dodd); Tonio (Christopher Purves); Beppe (Christopher Turner); Silvio (Mark Stone)

Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: Richard Jones.

Above: Jane Dutton as Santuzza

All photos by Robert Workman


Cavalleria rusticana, or 'Sicilian Revenge' in Sean O'Brien's translation, was psychologically insightful and dramatically compelling. The whole piece took place sometime in the 1940s inside a tiny village hall, with murky walls and an oppressive low ceiling, an uncomfortably intimate microcosm of a community in which everybody knows each other's business. All human life was here, from the illicit out-of-hours assignation between Turiddu (Peter Auty) and Lola (Fiona Murphy) to the village women preparing an Easter dinner. The importance of this central space was underlined by the centre-stage presentation of the Siciliana at the start and Turiddu's graphically brutal murder at the end, both of which Mascagni envisaged occuring in the distance. Only Jane Dutton's rejected Santuzza, fidgety and obsessive, remained on the periphery, coming into the central space for her pivotal scene with Roland Wood's threateningly masculine Alfio.

Ed Gardner's punchy conducting complemented Auty's red-blooded ardent tenor especially well, and brought out the opera's almost constant sense of raw heightened emotion which the piety of the Easter Hymn and the calm respite of the Intermezzo serve only to accentuate.

The addition of a mentally-disabled brother for Turiddu could so easily have come across as a cheap theatrical cliché, but his one line announcing Turiddu's murder, normally reserved for an offstage woman's voice, had devastating impact.

The English translation was somewhat hit-and-miss, but the only real problem — and it was a big one — was the incongruity of the drab indoor setting with Mascagni's lush Mediterranean score. Jones's production was a riveting piece of theatre in its own right, but the music seemed almost incidental to it.

After the interval, a surreal repeat of the 'Cav' curtain call heralded the descent of a new, bright orange curtain. We were thrown into the environs of a British provincial theatre sometime in the 1970s, about to welcome the stars of a TV sitcom for a week-long run of a cheesy bedroom farce.

This ingenious production was The Comedians, a genuine and coherent contemporary take on Leoncavallo's opera, a behind-the-scenes portrait of a clutch of outdated entertainers whose popularity is based on a façade of cheap laughs and in-jokes. With the exception of the bird aria, which didn't make a lot of sense out of its natural context, the whole affair worked extremely well and was in a completely different class from your average half-hearted opera 'modernisation' which tends to be riddled with inconsistencies. Lee Hall's English-language version was again more a reinvention than a translation, designed specifically in conjunction with this staging, renaming the characters to suit the context. These were recognisable characters, in equally recognisable sordid liaisons and public breakdowns against the backdrop of an impeccably-realised backstage environment by the set designer Ultz.

Cavalleria_rusticana_and_Pagliacci_008.pngPeter Auty as Turiddu

Although the characterisation was uniformly excellent, the singing, it has to be said, was variable; Geraint Dodd's Kenny (Canio) had a softer-grained, less focused tenor than is ideal in this role, while Christopher Purves's Tony (Tonio) was put under some vocal strain in the Prologue. Mary Plazas's Nelly (Nedda) and Mark Stone's Woody (Silvio) were far more vocally consistent, with strong support from Christopher Turner as Brian (Beppe).

Cavalleria_rusticana_and_Pagliacci_009.png Trevor Goldstein as policeman, Mary Plazas as Nelly

In a stroke of genius the final scene was given on a split stage, as if the on-stage theatre had been spliced at the proscenium arch and opened out like a book. Thus we got to focus on the audience's reactions as much as the on-stage action. The sense of unease and horror was expertly ratcheted up, and when Kenny had killed Woody and Nelly and turned his gun towards the audience, the onstage audience's collective dive for cover kept much of the real audience laughing right up to the last moment, until Kenny delivered his devastating closing line and turned the gun on himself. Suddenly, nobody was laughing any more. Absolutely brilliant.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

Cavalleria_rusticana_and_Pagliacci_014.png Mary Plazas as Nelly, Christopher Purves as Tony

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