The agonised and irrepressible twins Cav & Pag returned to the London Coliseum last month in John Blatchley’s production for Sadler’s Wells, which up-dates both operas to what appears to be the fag-end of the 50’s. They are both set in the same Sicilian village, and the action of each opera now takes place only six months apart. The agonies of rustic life in what are the most famous examples of operatic ‘verismo’ are on the surface, therefore, not given a fantastically realistic head-start. With this as background, one might be forgiven for thinking that life in rural Sicily is unrelentlessly tragic. (Imagine two such dramatic deaths in a community of just over a hundred in only six months!)
But no matter how often these operas are performed, or in what manner, they still make an incredible dramatic impact; they still continue to work on an audience. There is a lot in this production, which I thoroughly respect. Many points have been rethought and re-interpreted, points which truly add to the audience’s understanding of the operas. One in particular seems completely successful — the deletion of the ear-biting as a form of challenge before the duel. Instead, Alfio flashes his flick-knife, an action which sets the matter into immediate perspective.
The production was mounted in September last year during a period of financial austerity at the Coliseum, but Blatchley has made it plain in an interview (published as part of the programme notes) that this had nothing to do with the austere style of his staging. (One gently raked platform does for both Cavalleria and Pagliacci, and the fluted, metallic grey back-drop remains throughout the evening.) Around 80 per cent of audiences in this country watching a performance in the original language does not understand what is being sung. Blatchley believes that too often these audiences have in the past been compensated for their lack of understanding of the libretto by “over-described decoration” and “an over-expressive, larger than life style of acting”. He feels that this style has permeated all operatic production in Britain, and is himself seeking to establish a subtler approach in the confines of the Coliseum, where one hopes every word may be understood by the audience.
There are two basic premises behind the stark, uncolourful staging. First, the obvious notion that without the fussy detail the audience will be nudged into concentrating on the work itself and not on the pretty accessories.
The second idea raises more interesting and far-reaching questions. Blatchley holds that the events of Cavalleria are “essentially plain and classical”. And with this I would agree. Certainly, it cannot be doubted that the earlier opera does have greater dramatic strength than the play within a play of Pagliacci. It’s true, too, that if we interpret “classical” as meaning Greek classical, then it is certainly true that Cavalleria displays the dogged singularity of plot and dramatic purpose typical of Greek drama. It has no intricate Shakespearean (or perhaps more aptly Verdian) sub-plot, and respects all three unities of time, place and action. But does “plain” simply mean thin? Is opera always more effective when it tells a clearly delineated story?
Even without John Blatchley’s programme notes, his economical staging (which incidentally includes such props as a child’s pram, bicycle, cash register and what looks like the remains of a World War I ambulance lorry from which the actors perform in Pag) after an initial shock reaction does justify itself and intensifies the drama. Blatchley is well served by a sensitive and highly musical cast.
Margaret Curphey sings Santuzza with an exceptionally poignant lyricism and appropriate sense of desperate fatalism. While I had gone to the Coliseum still expecting to hear Rita Hunter’s sharp-edged, powerful and always deeply dramatic soprano, my disappointment was quickly quietened by Margaret Curphey’s achingly pathetic interpretation of the role.
While occasionally, both she and Robin Donald, who plays Turiddu, sounded strained in some of the higher passages, she lacked none of the committed passion so vital to the part. The big test of “Voi lo sapete” was encountered with masterly “breadth” and drive, though lacking to some extent in articulation, and phrasing. My only regret is that she is made to look so dowdy. One wonders how the ‘heart-throb’ of the village would have taken it into his head to rob her of her virginity in the first place!
Ann Hood, playing Lola, both musically and dramatically seductive, is unfortunately decked out in a costume more appropriate for Olympia in “The Tales of Hoffmann”. She sings her delightful little solo, which contrasts so pungently with the harsh tone of the Santuzza-Turiddu encounter, with pure tone, and characterful delicacy.
Raimund Herincx gave a startlingly aggressive edge to his portrayal of Alfio, the murderously jealous husband, whose all-consuming hatred is aroused by Santuzza, who then quickly regrets her passionate outburst. There is no doubting Herincx’s musicality, and here, as in the Coliseum production of Berlioz’ “Faust”, in which he stunned us with his account of Mephistopheles, he gets to the very heart of the character, and clothes its every movement and involuntary twitch with a breathing reality.
Roderick Brydon drove the Sadlers Wells Orchestra to even greater and more exhilirating heights, getting every ounce from Mascagni’s big “production numbers”, and moving orchestral interludes.
Pagliacci seemed to me less of a triumph. Although I applaud some of the production details, (the narrator of the Prologue, here magnificently sung by Derek Hammond-Stroud with every syllable crystal-clear and true, appears in actor’s dressing-gown instead of the usual clown’s costume, for example), the dramatic conviction carried by all the central characters in Cavalleria has not spilled over into its successor.
Anne Evans as Nedda has a more accurate soprano than Margaret Curphey, but somehow her voice seems less subtle, less flexible, less moving. She certainly looked every inch the part, but she failed to capture the audience’s sympathy, and her final murder seems less of a tragedy than just deserts.
Canio, too, seems here more of a pastiche of a Chicago hood than a man tragically consumed, possessed, by the image of one woman and her infidelity. Gregory Dempsey gave tremendous energy to the part, but vocally he lacked the dynamite declamation necessary to bring off the final solo “Pagliacci non son”.
One singer, however, seemed completely in control of his part, both dramatically and musically. It’s a pity then that Silvio, though central to the plot, has relatively little to sing when the part is interpreted with so much artistry as by Norman Welsgey. The rich timbre of his baritone voice reverberated into every niche of the auditorium, he phrased every line with matchless understanding for musical line and dramatic effect, and beguiled Nedda with truly glowing sonority.
Orchestrally, the opera is near impeccable under John Barker’s precise yet passionate direction.