A motley pairing

Live review: Cavalleria Rusticana/ Pagliacci New Theatre, Cardiff

In its 50th season, Welsh National Opera has chosen to celebrate by re-staging the two bills it presented on the opening nights of its very first season in April 1946.

Perhaps unluckily for enterprise, these happen to have been Cavalleria Rusticana with Pagliacci, and Gounod's Faust. But it would be churlish to deny this company, which has given us so much, its brief trip down memory lane, and I simply record with relief that - at least in Tuesday's double bill - there was no revivalism in musical standards, even if Elijah Moshinsky's Cavalleria Rusticana did occasionally look like a model version of the sort of production that, for better or worse, would have been normal after the war: a life-size maquette of a Sicilian village, with every detail in place, and the regulation choreography of milling back-slapping, grog-quaffing choral peasantry.

For Pagliacci, the designer Michael Yeargan offers the now more familiar blank canvas (probably the village football pitch) on which the players' lorry - we're a few years on from the 1890s - supplies the entire self- sufficient context for Leoncavallo's essentially greasepaint tragedy. This is neat and effective, and raises fewer problems than manoeuvring the same old villagers back and forth along the cardboard streets of operatic Sicily. Perhaps Moshinsky is making some point about recent theatre history. Only at the end of Cavalleria, anyway, is there much sign of the director's hand - in some clever shadowplay lighting (by Howard Harrison) for the denouement off stage.

But director's theatre, as such, it isn't. The terrible twins will only and always live by how they are sung, and even the acting need only be that sincere hamming that comes naturally to opera stars and merely grows self-conscious under the producer's eye. In such respects WNO is in its element. Dennis O'Neill, though not in most radiant voice, is perfectly cast as Canio - a pocket Caruso for our time - and a good, stylish Turiddu in Cavalleria. Peter Sidhom, nursing an infection, still sounded virile as Alfio and was excellent as Leoncavallo's Tonio, a stout ex-bouncer with a leg-iron, who moreover gets back his "la commedia e finita" line usually pinched by Canio.

The other castings have to split; the dramatic, charmless Santuzza, forcefully played here by Anne-Marie Owens, contrasting with the bird-like filigree of the freedom-seeking Nedda. Rosalind Sutherland, though a rather dumpy actress, comes to life with Nedda's music and is thoroughly touching in her pretty ballatella. Jason Howard makes the most of the small but crucial part of her lover Silvio; Anthony Mee is a lively Beppe.

Carlo Rizzi, who might himself have stepped from the pages of Verga - Mascagni's source - conducts with the red blood in full flow. But there is also delicacy: for instance, in the strings at Turiddu's "Mamma, quel vino e generoso". The chorus, as ever, is strong and dependable. The surtitle screen is not; it broke down, while assuring us, ad nauseam, that there was nothing wrong. Or was some higher power asserting that in verismo the words don't matter anyway?

n Tonight and 15 April, Cardiff New Theatre (01222 878889); Bristol Hippodrome 12, 15 March; Covent Gdn 20, 22 March

STEPHEN WALSH

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