Pagliacci at the Everyman Palace Theatre

October 24, 2013

The arts council has been on the receiving end of some richly deserved criticism about their handling of Opera in this country, criticism they hoped to a sway with the introduction of two separate funding schemes last December. The first product of their Opera Production Award is Pagliacci, a co-production between by The Everyman Palace Theatre and Cork Operatic Society, in association with Cork Midsummer, Barabbas and Cork Circus. So hold onto your hats. For here comes the hyperbole: It’s an unabashed triumph, a wall of wonderful sights and sounds that will have you applauding before you even enter the building. Featuring nine actor-musicians; an adult and children’s chorus (sixty person strong), a full orchestra; six circus performers and a cast of fifteen it is the musical, theatrical and artistic achievement of the year.

The circus has come to town, or at least the Commedia troupe fronted by Canio (Samm), his deceitful wife Nedda (O’Sullivan) and the Hunchback Tonio (Collins) who have made their annual visit to the village of Calabria to perform their latest work about the romantic troubles of the clown Pagliaccio. Life imitates art when it is discovered that both Canio’s real life and artistic wives are betraying him, ending in madness… and murder.

Directors Michael Caven-Barker and John O’Brien have transformed the Everyman into a five-ring circus, where the choirs, performers and musicians who move about the aisles, in the gods, in the foyer and the street outside the theatre, accentuate the action on stage. The circus master is having a drink in the bar before the show while some acrobats and a dancing bear move about during intermission. There’s a bearded lady, a fortune teller, conjoined twins and belly dancers interspersed between the singers who sport a variety of modern dress trends, while the orchestra and their conductor (also O’Brien) are done up to look like clowns. The costumes by Lisa Zagone (who also designed the stage as a giant, collapsed wedding cake) are remarkable, a sea of velvet and silk, red and gold, with painted faces and breast plates, waist coats, masks and pantaloons with striking commedia make up for the show within a show.

The Irish are a sucker for spectacle and Pagliacci sure as shit don’t disappoint. But unlike other shows that celebrated mindlessness of matter, the searing emotions that swirl about this pot shriek like a kettle, so that the hatred, jealousy, lust and loneliness cannot be buried beneath the gilded clobber, which are accompaniments and not distractions.

O’Sullivan plays the repugnant Nedda, but within her finds a loss, a longing that makes her truly pitiful, her ability to switch from contemptuous diva to forlorn songbird rooted in a realistic anguish that reflects her lot in life. Brendan Collins has the show stealing part, in terms of character, but his villainy comes as a by product of his lovesickness and not merely a chance to fry the bacon, making his actions understandable and not boo hissable.

We have a tendency to praise guile in this industry and side step the fact that the final product really isn’t all that. Pagliacci is a rare beast where at least as much thought has been put into executing the concept as was put into conceiving it that combines a stunning aesthete with well thought, passionate and pitch perfect performances, the result of blood, sweat and tears in pre-production.

If we get a show as good as this again this year we won’t be lucky. We’ll be witnessing a miracle.


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