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.
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.