Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The real thing

Robert Brubaker as Luigi and
Emily Pulley as Giorgetta in Il tabarro
Photo: Ken Howard

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Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
What: Puccini’s Il Tabarro and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci
Where: The Loretto-Hilton Center
When: through June 29th

Opera Theatre’s second production this season is a dramatically powerful and musically impeccable combination of two classics of verismo opera: Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” (“The Cloak”) and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” (“The Clowns”). “Verismo” is, literally, the Italian for “realism”; the verismo libretti deal with the joys and sorrows of ordinary people. Verismo arose as a kind of reaction to the mythic and historical subjects favored by Verdi and earlier masters.

Verismo was, in short, an attempt to make opera more “relevant” to (in the words of critic Stanley Sadie) “a middle-class public, which had a social conscience and expected to be seriously addressed in the course of its entertainment.”

Yesterday’s relevance, however, is today’s historical artifact. The provincial touring commedia dell’arte troupe of “Pagliacci” and, to a lesser extent, the commercial barge on the Seine of “Tabarro” would have been familiar to audiences when the operas were written at the turn of the last century, but now they seem exotic. How do you recapture the immediacy the original composers and librettists had in mind?

Director Ron Daniels has elected to move the action up slightly in time—both operas now appear to take place sometime in the middle of the last century. Otherwise, however, he seems to be willing to let these grim and violent dramas of despair, betrayal, and passion gone rancid speak for themselves—with dramatically powerful results.

Both operas deal with older men in loveless marriages with younger women who yearn for improbable escape with young lovers.

In “Tabarro” the barge owner Michele and his wife Giorgetta clearly loved each other at some point—they even have a poignant duet in which they recall those earlier days—but the death of their infant son has apparently driven a fatal wedge between them. She now dreams of escaping to the town of her birth with the stevedore Luigi, while Michele nurses a grudge and plots revenge. Michele is just sympathetic enough to make him a quintessentially tragic figure.

Kelly Kaduce as Nedda and
Robert Brubaker as Canio in Pagliacci
Photo: Ken Howard
In “Pagliacci,” on the other hand, Canio (Pagliaccio in the troupe’s show) is a boiling reservoir of rage from his first appearance on stage. When a villager jokingly suggests that the hunchback Tonio might have designs on Canio’s wife Nedda (the troupe’s Columbina), his smile becomes the rictus of Batman’s nemesis The Joker as he declares (in a very free translation of the original) “that’s not funny. .” When Tonio, angered by Nedda’s rejection of his crude attempt at seduction, arranges for Canio to find Nedda in flagrante delicto with her lover, the villager Silvio, the increasing spiral of violence is not so much tragic as grimly inevitable—a slow-motion train wreck.

The cast for this production, three of whom appear in both operas, could hardly be better.

Baritone Tim Mix is utterly credible as the tragic Michele, the black-hearted Tonio, and the mild-mannered Prologue of “Pagliacci,” who delivers the artistic manifesto of the verismo movement. It’s a classic triple-threat performance, beautifully sung. Tenor Robert Brubaker is equally remarkable in the contrasting roles of Luigi and Canio, with a powerful, ringing voice and compelling stage presence. I felt he overplayed Canio’s rage a bit in the famous “Vesti la giubba,” but he perfectly captured the despair of Luigi’s short (but technically challenging) aria in “Tabarro”.

Tenor Matthew DiBattista rounds out the double-cast trio as the stevedore Trinca in “Tabarro” and Beppe/Harlequin in “Pagliacci.” Both are relatively lightweight comic roles and he does well by them.

Soprano Emily Pulley makes an auspicious Opera Theatre debut as Giorgetta, perfectly capturing the character’s longing and conflict with a dark, almost mezzo voice and finely tuned acting. Soprano Kelly Kaduce once again captivated me with her combination of first-rate acting and singing as Nedda/Columbina. I’ve seen her in a wide range of roles over the years and she never has failed to impress.

Bass-baritone Thomas Hammons and mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak provide a moving interlude in “Tabarro” as the stevedore Talpa and his wife Frugola, whose longing for a bucolic escape mirrors that of Giorgetta and Luigi.

Both operas call for a considerable amount of offstage action, which can be a challenge for a space like the Loretto-Hilton center, but Mr. Daniels makes ingenious use of both the wings and the house, with large crowd scenes spilling up the aisles and surrounding the audience. That proves to be especially helpful in “Pagliacci” with its crowd of villagers and children (to say nothing of the silent Greek chorus of clowns added by Mr. Daniels). Even in the more intimate “Tabarro,” though, having the strolling song vendor, organ grinder, and unnamed lovers enter and exit through the house adds to the sense of immediacy.

The scores of both operas are musically rich. Puccini’s is clearly the more impressive and through composed of the two, while Leoncavallo is the more overtly theatrical. Both offer considerable challenges to the players and conductor as well, especially with singers coming in from ”here, there, and everywhere.” In his Opera Theatre debut, Ward Stare—who has done such fine work with the symphony over the years—kept everything humming along beautifully and the orchestra sounded great.

Both operas looked great as well, thanks to set designer Riccardo Hernandez and costume designer Emily Rebholz. “Tabarro” takes place in front of a backdrop showing Michele’s barge. The prow of the boat, the suggestion of the river, and the riverbank are all in black and grey, mirroring the bleak world in which the characters live. Even the titular cloak is black. After intermission, the stage appears to be largely unchanged for the Prologue of “Pagliacci,” but that’s an illusion. As soon as the Prologue ends, the silent chorus of clowns whip dark coverings off the stage, the barge backdrop rises, and suddenly we’re thrust into the gaudy world of the circus where the dominant color is, appropriately, a bloody red and the stage is dominated by a huge image of Pagliaccio on the rear wall.

It’s a smart bit of theatre, as is the entire evening. The musical and dramatic values of this production are all exemplary and I recommend it highly.

Opera Theatre’s compelling double bill of “Il Tabarro” and “I Pagliacci” runs through June 29th in rotating repertory with the rest of the OTSL season. For more information and schedules, experienceopera.org.

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