Review – Pagliacci – London’s Little Opera House at King’s Head Theatre

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I am a reluctant opera goer: while I enjoy music and singing, and plays in which people sing and there is music, when presented in the opera context I find myself too often bored and disengaged long before the performance is over. Frequently this is because of the topics or characters: I don’t like weak women and rather a lot of 19th century opera centers around dull women who make bad choices (a big exception to this is Carmen, my favorite opera – she may make bad choices but she is never dull!).

However, I keep going and hoping for a winner, and the King’s Head Theatre production of Pagliacci seemed very promising. I figured an opera set backstage at a theater centering on clowns seemed very novel, and, per the website, this was their “most successful” production. Well, alright, and it was being done in English, and was short, and I was interested to see what the producing group was doing with this opera lark … so what harm could a little opera do on a Sunday afternoon?

As it turns out, this wasn’t too bad of an outing. I hadn’t really done much research on the show itself (in keeping with my normal desire for surprise, but let’s say a manic clown declaring in the first act that he’d kill his wife if he found out she was cheating on him kinda spelled out where the show was going from a story arc perspective). The production focused on Nedda’s (Katie Bird) extra-marital romance with Silvio (David Durham), but they seemed like cardboard cutouts (or Star Trek “redshirts”) and were given little time to flesh out their characters enough to make us care about them. Nedda grabbed her stomach constantly as if she was worried we’d not gather she was pregnant based on her costuming (it was a mild bump admittedly); Silvio had a lovely voice but just did not have the stage time to explain why his relationship with her was something we should care about. The two of them were nice to listen to but I found them not compelling.

Against these two ciphers we had the much more exciting characters of Pagliacci (Paul Featherstone) and Tonio (Dominic Barrand). Tonio was supposed to be Iago crossed with Caliban; ugly, lecherous, and vengeful. Except, as it turns out, Barrand was actually an extremely handsome man with a rich bass voice; I loved watching and listening to him on stage. He was a fun villain with a powerful presence – I only wish they could let him be more evil!

By comparison, the anti-hero Pagcliacci was a weak and ineffectual bad guy, about what you would expect of a cuckold (and with a voice that seemed rather worn out for my matinee performance). Yeah, sure, you give him a knife and he’s a murderer (in fact I suspect this show is the origin of all examples of clown fear), but you couldn’t see any love in his interaction with his wife – she is (as the text makes clear) just another puppet for him to control. Yet in spite of this, Nedda isn’t able to build sympathy either. So you end the play with two unsympathetic characters coming to a homicidal head, meaning the focus of the action in act two is watching the Punch and Judy show taking place at the back of the stage and laughing at its comedic commentary on the live actors. Fortunately it was all short enough (not even ninety minutes) that my attention span wasn’t stretched – but I would have preferred it have a bit more dramatic – dare I say – punch. Ah well. This show didn’t capture my imagination, but it did show the potential of the company, so I expect I’ll be back for more later.

(This review is for a performance that took placy on Sunday, May 8th, 2011. It continues in rep through the end of May.)

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