Magazine article The Spectator

Twice as Good

Magazine article The Spectator

Twice as Good

Article excerpt

Cavalleria rusticana & I Pagliacci

English National Opera

Don Giovanni

Royal Opera

Cavalleria rusticana and I Pagliacci tend to be regarded by opera buffs as a couple of blowsy old tarts, still plying their trade long after they could plausibly expect any decent customers, and only to be contemplated or tolerated if they are wearing heavy disguise rather than merely thick layers of cosmetics. It's to the credit of ENO and the team that has mounted the new production of what are routinely called 'the terrible twins' that they take both pieces seriously, and though there's relocation in time and, with Pag. , in place, they are not so 'adapted' as to be presented as more or as less than what they are. That turns out to be, in both cases, tense, exciting and moving.

Richard Jones at his best is doggedly faithful to the spirit of a work, and not amusingly or bemusingly unfaithful to the letter; and this is Jones on top form. Admittedly, there are trademarks which seem to be there only to remind us that it is indeed Jones in charge: his passion for brown cardboard boxes is in evidence in Cav. , as well as his penchant for having a long narrow room into which people pour until it's like a rushhour tube. There is, surely, something about the opening of Cav. , the music I mean, which suggests the open air and the atmosphere of Easter in Sicily, which makes an oppressive contrast with the state of mind and the plight of the characters. But Jones doesn't want contrast, he only wants, and achieves, claustrophobia, the need to keep quiet, the hopelessness of having no one to turn to if you're in an appalling position.

Cav. surely deserves to be considered verismo, if any opera does, because the wretched central characters are a painfully realistic mixture of good and bad. The only character who is straightforwardly horrible is Mama Lucia, who preserves her sense of right and wrong by disapproving of everyone. Economically drawn by Mascagni, she comes across with surprising power, the person who is turned to by all the compromised characters, and unavailingly. We can't help warming to Santuzza, vengeful as she is, or Turiddù, vacillating to a degree where he is scarcely a coherent character, or even the suited Alfio, because they all have violent passions. In Mascagni's world anything is forgivable except coldness. A dangerous but enticing ethic, purveyed in music of exactly appropriate directness, even, I'm happy to grant, coarseness. All this seems to me to be ideally realised by Jones, and by Edward Gardner, conducting with intensity but enough refinement to keep sneerers at bay; and by a cast who contrive -- surely this is the apogee of operatic performance -- to look and behave like ordinary people, with feelings so vehement and urgent that it would seem unrealistic if they didn't sing. …

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