Which opera tugs most persistently at your heart-strings? Surely is must be Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. He hits your emotions roughly every four bars, compared perhaps with Carmen and Porgy and Bess every eight bars, Puccini every twelve, Mozart sixteen, Verdi likewise. Richard Strauss every fifty and Wagner every hundred or so – perhaps this could be a new parlour-game. Mascagni’s misfortune was that he peaked with Cav. at the age of twenty-six, never hitting the jack-pot again. One opera of his had seven simultaneous premieres around Italy and notched up seven flops, poor chap, cocky little strutter that he was.
English National Opera on September 20 let loose new productions by Richard Jones of that remarkable double-bill Cav and Pagliacci. Now Richard Jones is a hot number amongst opera directors these days. There is no one better than him (or Zefirelli) at staging crowd scenes, as we saw but his other feature is that he likes to shock, even if shock comes form Richard Jones and has little or nothing to do with the composer or the librettist. He is the director that had Brünnhilde come on with a paper-bag over her head. But his production of Cav (translated in the programme as Sicilian Revenge which is another title for what we usually call Country Chivalry was mild, why even the first snog of the evening was discreetly staged behind a row of chairs). There seemed no harm in the décor (by the ingenious Ultz) keeping us confined in a sort of shopping mall, no open air, no church, think when we speak of (Alfio’s) horses there are none, and Turiddu the no-good-boyo is killed on stage. Maybe, we thought, Jones is biding his time, leading us up the garden path for mayhem in Pag. (too right, he was). True, Turiddu pours a glass of wine into Alfio’s pocket before the customary eat-biting which in Sicily preludes a duel.
The best singing, the only first class singing of the evening, came from Peter Auty as Turiddu, his first major role I think, but surely not his last. Otherwise we had tidy singing but nothing to fill the house (one has sympathy for the singers, the Coliseum is a great barn of a place) Jane Dutton, pregnant by no-good-boyo did not compare with the great ones of the past; and her and Jones’ idea of indicating anguish was frequently to clutch at her skirt, hoiking it up. Chorus fine, orchestra roused itself but Edward Gardner would seem not to be the man for verismo. He did not stir the heart, the head or the loins. Even more thin-blooded was I Pagliacci (The clowns but the programme insisted on comedians which is way off English)
The prologue went off half-cock. The singer was bespectacled so that he looked like Arthur Askey. He sang tidily and discreetly whereas the voice here needs to be full-blooded, even fruity.
In Pag Jones let rip, showing his utter disrespect for Leoncavallo’s score; the domestic drama was turned into crude farce with doors, cupboards, and Canio actually losing his trousers for goodness sake! The combination of that and a less than good tenor resulted in his big aria, Laugh, clown, laugh being received in frosty silence instead of the usual roar of acclamation.
The result of this larking about meant that the passion and tragedy of the drama disappeared with Canio’s trousers. This was an artistic betrayal. Shame, ENO shame Richard Jones, and shame the musical director Edward Gardner for allowing this travesty to happen!