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Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci review at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – ‘ultra-traditional’

Gyula Nagy and Meeta Raval in the WNO Pagliacci at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. Photo: Bill Cooper
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Welsh National Opera celebrates its 70th anniversary by reprising its first ever offering – the famous double-bill comprising the two one-act pieces that launched Italian opera’s realist or ‘verismo’ movement back in the 1890s and which is known to all opera fans simply as ‘Cav & Pag’.

WNO itself commenced operations with these works by Mascagni and Leoncavallo at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Cardiff back in 1946. Even the productions revived here – rehearsed by Sarah Crisp from original stagings by Elijah Moshinsky whose costume designer is for some reason no longer credited – are twenty years old.

But the ultra-traditional Cavalleria, in particular, could be a straight reproduction of something far more ancient. Acting values are mixed and at times unconvincing, getting the evening off to a weak dramatic start.

Vocally things go better, with both Gwyn Hughes Jones and David Kempster solid as Turiddu and Alfio, though for all-round excellence one must turn to Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’s butter-wouldn’t-melt Lola and Anne-Marie Owens’s fraught Mamma Lucia.

Pagliacci is the stronger show – though even here the usually infallible play-within-a-play sequence would work better if the set was re-angled to face the audience in the auditorium, rather than the one on stage.

Neither the climactic double onstage murder nor the devastating final line “La commedia e finita!” (“The comedy has ended!”) sends any shivers down the spine – as they unquestionably should.

Creating positive impressions, though, are Meeta Raval’s fresh-toned but impassioned Nedda and Gyula Nagy’s lyrical yet dynamic Silvio. Hughes Jones and Kempster once again deliver capable readings of Nedda’s brutal husband Canio and her vengeful, rejected would-be seducer Tonio respectively.

Experienced conductor Carlo Rizzi, who has served the company as a skilled music director for two periods in its history, leads performances in which its accomplished orchestra and chorus are on focused form; but taken as a whole neither show represents WNO anywhere near its best.

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 Celebratory 20-year-old double bill that doesn’t showcase the company at its best