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Pagliacci: An Immersive Extravaganza

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Michael Mayes as Tonio-Taddeo) (Liza Voll photo)

The Boston Lyric Opera’s immersive version of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci transformed the utilitarian Steriti Memorial Ice Skating Rink into a circus wonderland. Sung in English and Italian, this production, which opened Friday and continues through October 6th, intensifies the realism and immediacy of the familiar verismo two-acter. While current European production trends lean toward minimalistic surrealism, forcing singers to over-act for the sake of story-telling, BLO’s show delivers a visceral, sensory experience that brought the action directly to the audience. This production balances a creative tight-rope between minimalism and decadence with grace, offering a substantial operatic extravaganza that inhabits both domains.  

Instead of wandering past the typical “fancy” opera house concession stands with overpriced drinks and light hors-d’oeuvres, we entered a carnival replete with meandering carnies on stilts, aerial silk performers, juggling, knife throwing, ring toss, tarot and energy readers, as well as a papier-mâché elephant, in a spectacle which prologued the main show. As the circus performers enthralled the tightly packed audience, comprising not a few blue-jean clad souls eating styrofoam contained takeout with plastic forks, all semblance of operatic convention disappeared. Just as the circus environment came to a boiling point, a large explosive pop sounded, releasing confetti, as a path opened to our seats in the amphitheater that served as both the orchestra pit and stage.

As the chamber orchestra of about 50 players slowly filed onto the raised pit and warmed up on their instruments, the lights dimmed, and conductor David Angus took his place, just as a gaggle of kazooed clowns arrived on the round platform that served as the stage. Buzzing and chirping Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” this cohort ushered in Esther Nelson, BLO General & Artistic Director for an explanation of the mise-en-scène.  She stressed the tremendous community support involved in this season opener, not only in the space and general organization, but also with schools, circus artists, and local craftspeople.  The whistles and bells galore testified to this huge curatorial effort. Nelson also announced that tenor Rafael Rojas, Canio/Pagliaccio, was recovering from a throat infection; his delivery did not fail to impress.

The transformed space turned out neither too live nor too dull acoustically since the company had enclosed the amphitheater using heavy curtains and cushioned the seats to deal with the unforgiving hard surfaces. As the overture and prologue began with a minor intonation crack during the otherwise gorgeous horn solo, baritone Michael Mayes as Tonio broke the third wall to address the audience in a plea for the artists’ plight, as emotionally capricious, yet ultimately human creatures. Mayes sang with great character and feeling, conveying meaning and affect with rich and even hues. Then the street-clothed chorus entered, wondrously playing the opera’s internal audience, nearly reaching equality with the principals. 

Lauren Michelle (Nedda) playing Columbina, Omar Najmi (Beppe) playing Harlequin (Liza Voll photo)

Rojas made a forthright entrance as the considerate orchestra reduced the volume so that his injured voice could warm-up. Traces of his native Spanish phonemes came through in his sung English. The chorus, some of whom had been planted in seats around the amphitheater, clapped along in reaction to the action. They exited depicting vespers and bells from the scene’s imagined village churches (Son quà), sounding their four parts throughout the amphitheater and bringing smiles to the audience’s faces as they cocked their heads in delighted observation.  Soprano Lauren Michelle began Nedda’s opening aria (Stridono lassù) with characteristic and beautifully light tones which perfectly suited her role.  Her line floated clearly above a rather messy obbligato that imitated her comforting birdsong.  Tonio’s pursuit and sexual harassment of Nedda realistically discomforted us.  Silvio’s aria (Decidi il mio destin) begins in a moment of subdued tones, colored by hazy strings; baritone Tobias Greenhalgh projected a timbre perfectly suited for such a musically expressive moment. Pleading, as another one of three lovers, Silvio engaged with Nedda in a beautiful duet (E allor perchè) painted by the same orchestral texture, including a gorgeously played cello solo from Aron Zelkowicz. This duet provided the only Italian singing of the evening, sadly interrupted by some real verismo from outside, as sirens from an ambulance passed the rink.  Rojas’s reentrance in “Put on the costume” (Vesti la giubba) portrayed Canio’s intensly mixed emotions as a cuckold.  It was as if the injured tenor had been saving his voice, as Canio smeared his face with the white Pagliaccio makeup, to unleash its full power of feeling for this famous operatic moment.

The entr’acte ensued with an aerial silks performance from the rafters accompanied by Leoncavallo’s wonderfully composed mashup of melodies, including a noted quote from the prelude to Act I of Lohengrin. Act II commenced with the chorus, much like the actual audience earlier, clamoring towards the figurative circus ― the Commedia dell’arte in the story itself ― the leads taking their spots on the round stage now clad in Charles Neumann’s sensational clown costumes, and white makeup by Anne Nesmith. Tenor Omar Najmi began plucking an out-of-tune guitar (O Colombina), this time dressed as a Harlequin, charming the audience with something sexy and cheeky as he made suggestive remarks towards Nedda, now dressed as Colombina. Tonio, now as Taddeo, followed suit in much the same flavor, though far more raunchily (referencing Colombina’s “virtue,” pleading to “smell [her] flower”). This interplay verged on great operetta – the innuendo produced quite audible giggling.  Rojas nursed his voice as Pagliaccio, though an agitated orchestra playing very much sotto voce, to maintain the action.  One has to really compliment Angus’s sensitivity to Rojas’s injury while maintaining the potent dramatic intent of the singer’s role. At this point, the blur between reality and Commedia dell’arte became a bit more difficult to parse, especially as the heightened emotions of rage, jealousy, and violence built too quickly. A healthy accelerando in the action impelled the crowd to its feet as the cast took their curtain calls.

The untoward rush slighted Leoncavallo’s very human tale. Pagliacci implies multiple clowns, with each character acting out his/her desires, unhindered by any form of honorable conscientiousness, until hedonism gives way to tragedy. Indeed, this wantonness evokes a plebeian Don Giovanni.          

BLO’s North End production of Pagliacci closes next Sunday.

Cellist, conductor, organizer, commentator, and musical facilitator, Santa Barbara native Nicolas Sterner is the Collaborative Director and Conductor of the Chromos Collaborative Orchestra.
Patrons take part in midway games, hear community choruses, and enjoy Circus Up (Liza Voll photo)

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6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. My first response, as a devoted opera goer, to the lights, music, clowns, the dressed-like-the audience chorus, and general opening mayhem of this unconventional operatic experience was discomfort and some confusion. Then, however, the music started, and the singing, and I was totally transported. How BLO found and contracted this brilliant cast of tenor, baritone and soprano is beyond me but they did, and the result was actually better than any “traditional” production of Pagliacci I’ve seen. All BLO producer/director effort and intention fell into place once the singing began and the experience of the surround sound, surround chorus, surround color was just fantastic. In fact I’m able to describe it as breathtaking.

    Comment by Amy Nicholls — October 6, 2019 at 2:26 am

  2. That’s the FOURTH WALL that was broken, the one between the audience and the performers. Almost always invisible yet almost never broken through the ages. This was a great story well told; the first time I’ve seen it performed live. Thanks to its being a stand-alone single bill rather than being done with Cavalliera Rusticana (which I still must see) BLO restored a long aria/duet in Act One almost always cut–and that restoration really made a difference in the pacing of the story. BTW does anyone else remember the Kellogg’s TV ad using THE great aria from Pagliacci “No more Rice Krispies..till I hear Snap! Crackle! Pop!”? Then a full-figured woman comes through the rear door “I’ve brought more Rice Krispies/Enough to last six weeks..” and Pagliccio says “It’s my mother-in-law/It’s her sixth visit this year” and concluded with a great Pagliacci Laugh. Priceless–and over FIFTY years ago! Which brings up the only flaw in this otherwise stunningly wonderful production: THERE WAS NO PAGLIACCI LAUGH at the end of THE aria!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — October 14, 2019 at 9:38 am

  3. Have you checked the score? (I haven’t.) The so-often-sung laugh at the end of Iago’s great, nihilistic “Credo” in Verdi’s “Otello” has no laughter in the score at the end of the aria. In the thirty or so live performances I have heard, only one omitted this extraneous and unsubtle “tradition.” Verdi certainly didn’t want it sung that way. One look at the score of “Pagliacci” will tell you what Leoncavallo wanted.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — October 15, 2019 at 5:53 pm

  4. Interesting note on the Pagliacci “Laugh”; Sometime at BU I’ll check. BTW did anyone else get to the “Cavelliera Rusticana” at the Colonial on Friday 18. October for one night only? It had snuck up on me and I only relearned about it walking to my once-a-week report for work assignments. Had I gone via Kneeland/Stuart Sts I wouldn’t have known about it. I’m not a good reviewer, but Well Sung and Acted. The stage direction was by Mascagni’s great-grand-daughter; they used a wind-band orchestra (really!: no strings) so it sounded not-the-usual-Cavveliera. The stage set was borderline minimal with backdrop screens with moving images of Sicily and its people. They kept to the plot closely–no Eurotrash need apply–and all in all it was VERY effective and I now understand the plot. A Sicilian Revenge Story. Yes, the sort of thing that frightens non-Sicilians–but it got me thinking of American stories or settings that might fit. All in all, because apparently there were NO cuts supposedly (same with Pagliacci), this was the Cavelliera to see; this was my first live performance and the story was very understandable; this is another opera that MUST be acted to work. A co-worker told me (he was in the Italian Chorus in the Pagliacci “Circus”) that I must be one of the few people to have seen “Cav & Pag” separately AND solo AND uncut and NOT as a double-bill–and only three weeks apart!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — October 27, 2019 at 4:29 pm

  5. tell us more bout Cav at the Colonial. BMInt got no notice of it.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 27, 2019 at 7:59 pm

  6. The Cav was a touring production from Sicily. There were at least two performances (one in Boston and one in New York). Several stores in the North End had notices in their windows publicizing it.(That is how I learned of it.)

    Comment by John Crimlisk — October 27, 2019 at 11:42 pm

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