Sunday, 26 October 2008

Laugh, 'Mr Paxo'

...or, 'Ridi, pagliaccio'. And weep, those of you with any interest in a new take on the hoary old Cav 'n Pag double-bill who failed to catch the ENO production, for it was the final performance of the run I saw on Thursday (don't worry - it will surely be back another season). Anything Richard Jones attempts is worth seeing, love it or hate it, for its skewed or visionary approach; but I'd say, along with my friend the former ENO repetiteur and pianist to the stars Phillip Thomas, that this Pagliacci ranks among his most extraordinary shows yet.

The radical, but risky, premise was to commission writer Lee Hall to provide a completely overhauled English performing version. I guess Jones had the concept of turning the Italian travelling players into a group of English rep comedians and sitcom stars in the 1970s. Hall's 'translation' could have fallen flat with a lesser director, and I was delighted to be proved wrong in doubting that either could sustain the conceit convincingly when the players stage their harlequinade - here, a bedroom farce called 'Ding, Dong', along the lines of the long-running 'No Sex Please, We're British' (for some reason the poster on the wall of Matt Lucas's sleazy impresario in Little Britain, advertising 'Sex Please, We're Not British', makes me laugh whenever I think about it). The sequence of scenes - designed by the wonderful Ultz - that unfold behind the orange curtain are always surprising: the vividly recreated street scene outside a rep theatre in the north, where a little girl steps out of the crowd to do a delighted little line dance in homage to her TV idols; the stage and the auditorium where Nelly (Nedda) lives out her dreams; the four dressing rooms in one of which Kenny 'Mr Paxo' Evans (Canio) rages and weeps; and finally, the split-screen effect of both the auditorium and the stage, seen here in the second of four ENO production images by Robert Workman before the curtain rises on 'Ding, Dong':

Cavalleria Rusticana, a score with moments of surging passion but infinitely weaker musical and dramatic construction poses more problems: what to do with the half-hour of vignette preambles where absolutely nothing happens? Jones sets the action in a village hall-cum-storeroom for Alfio's comestibles, and turns the village people into joyless drones: was there a point being made that not all Italians, least of all Sicilians caught up in a vendetta mentality, are jolly and vivacious, just as not all Brits in the 1970s were buttoned-up and grey? Jones slightly overplays his hand in the constant presence of a young man with cerebral palsy playing another young man with cerebral palsy. Otherwise, nothing remarkable goes on here except for the claustrophobic crowding-in of the chorus in the small room and an especially nasty murder.

Musically, both performances had their distinguished elements. In Cav, which started orchestrally very strikingly in Ed Gardner's hands but became rather stodgy, a million miles from what an Abbado or a Muti would make of it, there were a very nearly Italianate tenor Turiddu (Peter Auty, apparently the original treble voice for 'Walking in the Air' before Aled Jones did the commercial version) and a rather wild but not at all bad mezzo Santuzza (Ana Ibarra). Pag had a slightly wooden Kenny, Geraint Dodd, who did let rip with sobs in the voice for the big number but didn't spread the right psycopathic terror in the final scene. Nelly was another singer I'm happy to count as a friend, the ineffable Mary Plazas, who as usual provided the classiest legato singing of the evening and proved a surprisingly good comedienne in 'Ding, Dong'. Here she is surrounded by mute members of the company.

All hell was let loose on a certain website when I waxed lyrical over Christopher Purves's Tony. I'd already said that I thought he made a more appropriate Wozzeck on stage than the Lieder-lovely Matthias Goerne, and this brought some mockery from certain Brit-hating Americans who hadn't even seen him in the part. I should explain that I was completely ignorant of the irrational hatred directed against each and every British singer from those in the USA smarting (and probably with some justice, who knows) from the engagement of British administrators and singers when American ones might have got the job in question. About this I don't particularly care - why should I, when I don't live there? All I want is to note a performance that has moved or thrilled me, and since I happen to live in London that's just as likely to be a UK singer at ENO as an international artist at the Royal Opera. But this extolling of Purves's vivid theatrical skills - OK, no Fischer-Dieskau as a voice but certainly the next Andrew Shore as a stage animal - brought forth extraordinary bile on the site. One fanatic screamed in no less than half a dozen posts that I was provincial, like a weird old lady from Des Moines, that I didn't even know I was provincial, which made it hilariously funny.

Oh, enough already. I'm out of there (especially as the 'hostess' also has a weird thing about 'fucking Brits'). J has always told me that blog threads are a school playground where the bullies shout the loudest. And, sadly, for a second time, he's been proved right. The regrettable thing is that I really learned a great deal from half a dozen knowledgeable souls, exchanged ideas, bought or sought out recordings because others had said they were personal favourites (we did especially well out of a Margaret Price fan posting files which we were able to download). One of these interesting guys, correspondence with whom is to be found at the bottom of the previous entry, has also left in outrage at an especially vindictive attack on Renee Fleming's private life, and he suggests that I invite the wise few to join us here. Well, may they appear if they want to - but no screaming trolls, please: they shall be rebuked and redacted.


DanTD said...

I totally agree with you about Purves.

"The next Andrew Shores".


David said...

Well, that looks like more irony to me - but believe me, all of those insular Brits lucky enough to have enjoyed the great Shore in performance (and again, I'm not saying the great voice of Shore) will take what you say at face value.

Anonymous said...

The Pagliacci looks like a great show. It seems to me that "ham 'n Eggs" as they were known in my childhood work best as either astounding displays of vocalism (Gorr as Santuzza), Mario Del Monaco as Canio, Warren as Tonio or as well directed, expressively sung theater pieces. I'd love to have seen the Pagliacci -- I have a sick weakness for both operas but it's rare to see them work really well, and they are less in need of really glamorous singing (like Aida) than the 'relatebility' of thier presentation (a City Opera production that took place in Manhattan's "Little Italy" in the 30's was similarly effective, and likewise had a better Pagliacci).

David said...

My introduction to the best bit of Cav, the 'No, no, Turiddu' duet - which still gives me goosebumps in the pause before it starts, whether it turns out to be well sung of not - was Suliotis and Del Monaco on Decca's 'World of Italian Opera'. I MUST get that recording - it's years now since I've heard it and I'm convinced I would still find it electrifying.

You're right - I think Pag could work just as drama (actually it was pretty well sung for the most part, and I forgot to mention the Silvio, 'Woody' the stage carpented in this production, Mark Stone, very promising, ditto the Beppe, whatever he was called - a nice little Serenade in which to shine, isn't it). As I said on Parterre, I wouldn't touch the ENO Aida with a bargepole, especially as I heard it so well cast at Savonlinna. I hope the Aida then, Adina Aaron, stays the course. She made a pretty quick graduation from a nymph in Ariadne, and apparently wants to take four years out now to consolidate.

Albert Innaurato said...

You know David if you like that Cav duet you NEED to know the Dusolina Gianini (I AM Dusolina Gianini) and Gigli performance from maybe 1933 -- it is wildly unhinged. There is also the live Mascagni Cav from Amsterdam with the mad Lina Bruna Rasa and Melandri, the whole thing is thrilling (and much better than Mascagni's commercial record). They're easy to find but I could try and upload them to rapidshare.

The most amazing account I saw was back in 1959, when as a tender gel I saw Bjorling and Simionato at the Met. It was a return of sorts for Jussi, so when he entered the audience went crazy and stopped the show. He literally had to back out and come on again, and they gave EVERYTHING (and Giulietta capped the performance with an IMMENSE high C, the loudest I have ever heard as she slowly collapsed to the floor -- there was then a riot).

David said...

Hmmm - well, I can't claim to have ever seen a Cav like that. Indeed, they were Titans.

But I'm glad you bring up the great Dusolina - the Preiser disc was a revelation. I always play her first Leonora (Forza) aria to my students as a model of perfect phrasing and breath control. She does the Neapolitan songs very artistically too.

Albert Innaurato said...

David if you like ME (I mean Dusolina) have you heard her German language records? There's a Butterfly duet with Wittrisch, some lieder (I think Brahms) and some excerpts from The Merry Widow. I've always thought these captured her very distinctive timbre best.

David said...

Gosh, no - but now I'll hunt them out along with the Cavs you mention.

jondrytay said...

I was away on holiday when all that nonsense went on chez parterre- sorry, but not surprised, to hear that you tired of the same old slangings and slaggings.

David said...

Oh, so good to hear from another of the articulate contingent.

It was so absurd! I really thought someone else might point out that I am not exactly a provincial; if anything, I fancy myself a bit of a citoyen du monde. But there's no arguing with the insane.

What really made me give up the ghost was that our hostess - even if not entirely sincerely, as Mrs JC points out - tends to that view too.

Well, it's all to the detriment of Anglo-American understanding. I'm happy enough to learn about their stars and dramas; ours are clearly beyond the pale.

Anyway, AJ, do keep in touch. I must tell you that I had to halt the latest 'Peep Show' sequence after the deliriously awful episode with the boy wonder who wants to join the band. It does, as you say, get much, much worse.

Those two are a bit funnier than Brand and Ross, aren't they?

jondrytay said...

I like to think they are, certainly. We're about to go into the studio with series three of 'Look' and there's another Peep Show on its way in the spring, by the way.

Sorry to post as 'armerjacquino'- I was too shamefully lazy to register a new google account so there we are.

By the way, I stumbled across a rare find this weekend- I was in Milan (surprise 70th birthday treat for my mum, incl: Von Otter at La Scala) and in Ricordi I spotted a DVD of Janowitz in concert in 1970. In among the usual rep is a GREAT version of Odabella's aria and- wonderfully- a 'Vissi d'arte'. As you can imagine, what it lacks in raw drama it more than makes up in beauty.

David said...

Well, now you don't have to go down the Google route at all - see the most recent entry.

Ah, great Gundula. Did you catch that Schubert recital she gave at the Wigmore some years ago? I was in tears throughout. Sadly, Edita in her dotage didn't have the same effect recently.

Anonymous said...

I missed the Schubert concert, to my eternal regret. I did see her as Ariadne when I was 14, with Gruberova and Murray and some kind of fat tenor. That kind of memory sticks around.

You know very well that I have a Janowitz obsession- even though she would only be my singer of choice in a few works (VLL, Capriccio, Fidelio, Freischutz, Ariadne, Arabella, since you don't ask) there is something about her voice which bypasses everything. If it wasn't dodgily Wagnerian I'd say that there's a kind of ecstasy about the sound itself. I'd go elsewhere for Mozart (her Countess and Pamina are pretty special, but I don't think she gets NEAR Fiordiligi or Anna) but she has the ability to make me catch my breath and sit still, if you know what I mean. Her version of 'Komm Hoffnung' will be played at my funeral, if I have anything to do with it, and everyone will have to sit there and listen to the whole thing. I may even specify that my coffin be set down on the top Bb of 'erreichen'. No, hang on, that's weird. I'm spreading the word, too. We used the 'Und ob die Wolke' from the Kleiber 'Freischutz' in a radio play I worked on and received FIFTY letters from the Beeb asking what the beautiful music was.

Blimey, this is a long post. I will close only by saying (a) buy the Suliotis 'Cav' from itunes for seven quid, you fool.

(b) I agree with you both about Giannini

(c) Obratszova (sp?) is a magnificent Santuzza on the film soundtrack, and I don't understand why she is sneered at by you critical types

and (d) Cav is a MUCH better opera than Pag.

Yours, at much length,

the artist formerly known as AJ.

David said...

Me? I adore Obrasztsova - as I think I said on Parterre at least twice, she still had diva quality in the Bolshoy's Tsar's Bride - crowds of students with armfuls of flowers rushed up to the stage amid the multiple curtain calls at the end - and so good to see her Marina in the mannequin-period Rimsky-version Boris when it came to London.

Well, I shall seek out those Gundula tracks you mention. It's not weird at all to think what one wants people to hear at one's funeral. I think my constant is Lucia with Haitink in the closing scene of Strauss's Daphne.

But it's funny, isn't it, there are certain soprano voices that people fall in love with at first hearing. Popp, Auger, Janowitz, M Price - and last night, Monogarova was back and the number of people who came up to rave about her 'liquid gold', as one lady put it... The voice doesn't 'cut', but it's so delicious and she has such presence and delicacy as an actress.