Eight Little Greats – No.1: Pagliacci

Pagliacci [Sung in David Parry’s English translation]

Canio – Geraint Dodd
Nedda – Majella Cullagh
Tonio – Jonathan Summers
Beppe – Iain Paton
Silvio – Mark Stone

Audience – Chorus of Opera North

Orchestra of Opera North
David Parry

Director – Christopher Alden
Designer – Johan Engels
Costumes – Sue Willmington
Lighting – Adam Silverman
Choreography – Claire Glaskin

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 22 June, 2004
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

This was the first offering of Opera North’s “Eight Little Greats” season at Sadler’s Wells – the last destination on its England tour. This season of eight short one- or two-act operas presented not as set double bills but in a mix-‘n’-match style allowing the public some scope to plan their own couplings seemed an intriguing and adventurous idea when announced. The idea was also to present short operas either with a popular status (Pagliacci), those heard occasionally but staged rarely (The Seven Deadly Sins), those with ‘great’ status that are not seen often (La vida breve) together with lesser-known short works by well-known composers.

Learning the works dropped in the planning (Bluebeard’s Castle, Cavalleria rusticana, La Navarraise) one might hope that a second similar season might come to fruition. In the spirit of the project each ‘little piece’ will have its own review.

So the first show was probably the best known of the eight operas – Leoncavallo’s verismo war-horse Pagliacci. This was a staging full of interesting ideas and some witty touches. Rather than rely on the standard presentation of Act One presenting the ‘real-life’ of the group of travelling players and Act Two the ‘opera within the opera’, Christopher Alden chose to reverse this with some unsettling results. The curtain was up as one entered the auditorium, the stage presenting some red theatre-seating together and the positions for a small band. Silvio was seated at the front in a costume that identified him as being a bit nerdy. During the opening music he fished in his bag for treasured souvenir programmes and records of former performances of “Canio and the Clowns”, and displayed his groupie infatuation of the lead female vocalist Nedda.

Also on stage, seated towards the back, was Tonio, who came forward to deliver his “what happens on stage is make-believe” prologue. The seats then gradually fill up with the expectant audience waiting on the performance by the band – Tonio on drums, Nedda on vocals, Canio on guitar and Beppe on keyboard. As they ‘perform’ their succession of arias the audience antics display that this is a tried and tested programme and that they know all the songs – a lot of audience involvement rather akin to some of the feel-good singalong shows that still litter London’s West End.

There were some nice touches here. I particularly liked the moment when Nedda sings her aria about her longing for freedom and describes the birds flying freely through the sky – at this moment the stage audience all started throwing little paper aeroplanes around ‘their’ auditorium. And there was a moment during “Vesti la giubba” when they all produced little torches and swayed in time with the big-tune. This might sound rather over-emphasised but it worked on the whole. Silvio gets his karaoke-moment with his singer idol, and at the end is left alone in the auditorium wrestling with his emotions at having performed with his favourite star.

The second act, normally the ‘staged’ drama, takes us to the canteen of the theatre where the band is now sitting, and the divisions are there to see. Nedda is evidently having a real affair with Beppe, and has repulsed the advances of Tonio, and is fearful of her violent and alcoholic husband Canio. Serving in the canteen is Silvio. As Canio, threatening violence, becomes more insistent that Nedda reveal her lover’s name Silvio intervenes and calling Nedda’s name (as her greatest fan), is mistaken for the lover and shot, along with Nedda.

This idea of juxtaposing what is normally seen and heard as operatic pastiche with the more operatically composed ‘reality’ really worked, although what someone not familiar with a conventional staging would make of it I am not sure. For me the depiction of the deadly serious backstage drama to the pastiche opera music was unsettling because it jarred, and I found this dramatically more satisfying in the end.

Sadly, though, the vocal performances were a little uneven, and some for the voices sounded a little tired – this is the last stop of the tour. Geraint Dodd, dressed in white suit, Texan hat, red shirt, and looking a bit like Harry Secombe, was a slightly strained Canio. He rallied well for his big moments, although they were sometimes over-emphatically phrased, and it was not always an ingratiating sound. Jonathan Summers was Tonio and although he seemed slightly dry of tone one could hear every word of David Parry’s rather un-poetic translation. Majella Cullagh gave a feisty performance and well-sung account of Nedda’s music – but she does have some of the most lyrical and best music. Iain Paton’s rendition of Beppe’s short aria was also extremely well sung, although the impact was lessened by his having to sing it facing backstage whilst playing a pinball arcade game! Mark Stone was the Silvio – he acted beautifully – and sang his karaoke duet with Nedda most persuasively in his focussed baritone.

The orchestra played well under Parry, although from an interpretative point of view this was a rather ordinary account of the score that held few surprises and revelations on the way. Occasionally the fortissimo blasts threatened to drown the voices and ultimately did not convince that the opera was ‘great’. It remained the support for some great set arias that singers like to sing. However, the provoking production and characterisations of the principals made for an enjoyable evening.

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