In a snit with his music publisher Ricordi, who was pushing young Puccini, Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, who thought his first opera had languished because of indifference, signed up with rival publisher Sonzogno. He had an opera ready to go, a heady melodrama about infidelity within a traveling theater troupe. I Pagliacci (The Clowns) struck opera gold. Conducted at the 1892 world premiere by soon-to-be legendary firebrand Arturo Toscanini, and sung by a four-star quartet of singers (including Victor Maurel, the French baritone superstar who created the role of Iago in Verdi's Otello and would soon debut in his Falstaff), Leoncavallo's verismo opera about sex, jealousy, and revenge was a thunderous success. The music world ate it up. It was the last time, however, that one of Leoncavallo's works would ever catch fire. But if you're destined to write one of the most enduring operas in history, Pagliacci is the one to pen.
It is concise, utterly dramatic, and totally believable. Full of heat and rushing melody, it never stops. The opera's as theatrical as its setting. The work has entered the world's consciousness with its motif of “laugh, clown, laugh;” the old showbiz chestnut that the show must go on, no matter how much your heart is breaking. Leoncavallo runs with this idea, setting his original libretto (his own, by the way) in a bedraggled commedia dell'arte company touring the Italian provinces. Colorfully designed by Torsten Lewis – those antique circus posters are definitely eye-catching – with costumes by L.A. Clevenson, the production is set in Victorian England, although you wouldn't know if you hadn't read the program. Why England instead of southern Italy is anyone's guess, but Pagliacci would work even if were set on the moon.
Canio (tenor James Chamberlain), who plays Pagliaccio in the “show within the show,” runs the business. He's insanely suspicious of wife Nedda (soprano Donata Cucinotta), who plays Columbina in the troupe. Canio had rescued Nedda as a “young orphan” from the Italian mean streets. He thinks he has saved her. Not exactly virtuous, Nedda yearns to be free. She already has a lover, local Silvio (baritone Jeremiah Johnson), but company member Tonio (tenor James Rodriguez), ugly and hunchbacked who plays the troupe's comic fool, lusts after her, too. The company's other member, Beppe (tenor Dashiell Waterbury), tries to stay out of everyone's way. When Tonio makes his move on Nedda, she spurns him, laughing and mocking him. He vows revenge for this humiliation, and when he spies her tryst with Silvio, he runs to tell Canio.
In one of opera's most famous tenor arias, “Vesti la giubba” Canio puts on his costume and makeup while his heart aches. The troupe performs for the small town. Ironically, the play mirrors the actors' real life, as Columbina cuckolds Pagliaccio. The audience has a merry time until Canio breaks the fourth wall, accusing Nedda of being unfaithful. Is this part of the play? they wonder, it's so real. Canio demands Nedda reveal her lover's name. She refuses. He loves her; he can't understand why she would betray him. She's adamant. No name. Furious, he stabs her. When Silvio runs to help, Canio stabs him, too. Quick as a flash, with a wicked laugh, Canio announces, “The comedy is over.” Blackout.
Lean and taut with no extra filler whatever, Leoncavallo's two-acter gallops like a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper account of some sensational murder. It's melodrama in all capital letters – Love, Lust, Revenge, Murder! Leoncavallo has a felicitous way with melody that he would never display again, and Pagliacci is filled with exquisite songs and orchestral effects that nemesis Puccini would finally rival.
Each of the five principals gets to shine. Tonio has the “Prologue,” a beguiling intro to the opera, both bounding and thoughtful as he warns us not to confuse acting with real life. Watching the birds fly overhead, Nedda envies their freedom in “Stridono lassu,” a rapturous paean whose vocal line soars ever higher. Canio, of course, gets his showstopping “Vesti” and another winner in Act II, his cantabile “No, Pagliaccio non son” (“No, I'm not a clown”), when he confronts his faithless wife. Lover Silvio has a gorgeous duet with Nedda, “Tutto scordiam”(“Forget everything”), a Tristanesque moment of bliss; while Beppe sings a melodious old-fashioned serenade in Act II's play within the play.
This is all gangbusters. So why is Opera in the Heights' opening production of its 20th season (!) truly alive only in the last half-hour? No one warms up until midway through the work, and by then we've lost a lot of interest. Rodriguez grumbles through the Prologue, Cucinotta's big set piece about freedom is choppy, Chamberlain blusters and bellows, Johnson looks terribly uncomfortable, and only Waterbury knows what he's doing. Did director Susan Stone Li phone in her notes? Maestro Eiki Isomura doesn't help, overlaying Act I with sleepy tempi and some missed communication between pit and singers. And those strings need extra rehearsal time. Even OH's chorus, known for its plangent communal blend, sounds ragged and miscued.
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But then something magical happens. Maybe it's Leoncavallo's Midas touch; maybe the singers passed through opening night jitters; maybe the drama took hold and shook them awake, but suddenly Pagliacci came alive. The singers relaxed (or their throats did), maestro Isomura got a B12 shot, and the drama took off. What had been clunky staging turned natural; the play within the play actually was funny; and the underlying tension which had been missing in action came to the fore. The final twenty minutes were harrowing, edge-of-your-seat excitement, just what Leoncavallo had in mind.
What had been bluster from Chamberlain – my, he can sing loud! – worked in his favor when he toned it down. His wrenching final aria to Nedda was heartbreakingly tender; his gruff stage presence paying off handsomely as the big lug begs her to reconsider. Cucinotta's fiery soprano opened up with a blistering top, square on, raising goosebumps in the best possible way. To top it off, she's the only soprano I know who can do a split, cartwheel, and headstand! Brava for that!
Leoncavallo wrote a one-off with Pagliacci. But what a one-off. This late 19th-century work certainly isn't subtle, but it connects with audiences in a visceral way. Unique in the repertoire, Pagliacci punches without apology. It seems to floor Opera in the Heights until our venerable little brother of an opera company fights back. Once OH meets Leoncavallo on his own terms, it scores a knockout.
I Pagliacci. September 20, 24, 26. Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $13-$63.