Monday, 13 October 2008

Cav & Pag at English National Opera

That's Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci to you and me. Which is my first gripe. Cavalleria rusticana doesn't mean anything in English - it's Italian and translates as Rustic Chivalry ('Country Manners' in the Chandos Opera in English series!). Pagliacci is a proper name so doesn't need translating but the character gets it anyway, becoming 'Mr Paxo' for reasons of both concept and scansion. We'll revisit this inconsistency-in-English business at the end.

Confrontation, contradiction and downright perversity - you can take it to the bank when two of the more familiar repertory operas get staged by Richard Jones. A director who likes to tip opera on its head to really get at it's heart, he's a bit like the playground bully who holds the small boy by his ankles until the dinner money falls out of his pockets - only to pick up the cash and give it back to him: 'See, look how much you had all along!'.

The Cav labours under some strange stage direction that has the chorus alternately embracing (it's Easter) and ignoring one another. There's no rhyme or reason for that but I did like the minor updating, setting the opera in a rough village hall in the 1930s. The romanticism of rural Italy is effectively supplanted by the kitchen-sink drama at its heart and the stage-in-the-stage lends itself to a trademark-Jonesian on-off stage inversion at the denoument. Powerful stuff.

Pag is a more energetic affair, largely as it has been saturated with ideas. There are four scene changes (not including superfluous dummy curtain call from the previous opera and the Prologue) all working an exploded-perspective view of 'the theatre'. It's not consistent enough to really roll the drama out - it's a bit choppy - but it is engrossing and subversive. You catch yourself laughing at the wrong moments and on the night I went a staged walkout by a chorus-parent concerned at Mr Paxo's lapse into obscenity was mirrored by someone stalking out of the Coliseum stalls in a huff.

In order to relocate or accommodate this opera in the 1970s variety circuit the text not only gets translated but transformed to fit the concept: 'Mr Paxo' is a case in point, a witty, inspired substitution for the eponymous principal character but bearing absolutely no resemblance to the clown of the original title or the ambiguous Harlequin lineage of the character. I think this approach is valid. The opera isn't about a clown per se. As I say, Jones is prepared to do rather alarming things in order to get at something fundamental.

Great ideas, competently dispatched - musically a little thin perhaps, across the board. Singing in English doesn't help this most intrinsically Italian of all opera but in addition to the worn arguments over accessibility and poetry - the literal vs the lyric - Jones has driven in this alternative wedge, the demands of the drama. As in all meta-operatic disputes it's the most important and the easiest to overlook. I missed a fair bit of what I might reasonably have expected from THE operatic repertory double bill on Saturday night - what I got was a fresh, thoughtful dramatic experience.

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