15 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo — PAGLIACCI (B. S. Russell, S. Kantorski, R. Zeller, D. Pershall, J. Sorensen, C. Blackburn, S. Toso; Greensboro Opera, November 2019)

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (center left), tenor BRANDON SCOTT RUSSELL as Canio (center right), and the cast of Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): PagliacciBrandon Scott Russell (Canio), Suzanne Kantorski (Nedda), Richard Zeller (Tonio), David Pershall (Silvio), Joel Sorensen (Beppe), Christian J. Blackburn (Un contadino), Sean Toso (Un contadino); Members of Burlington Boys Choir, Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Steven White, conductor [David Holley, producer and stage director; James Bumgardner, chorus master; Bill Allred, children’s chorus master; Jeff Neubauer, lighting designer and technical director; Greensboro Opera, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; 15 and 17 November 2019]

No year in the four centuries since the first performances of Jacopo Peri’s and Claudio Monteverdi’s pioneering favole in musica has been wholly uneventful, but 1892 was an especially momentous year in the history of opera. In addition to the world premières of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally and Umberto Giordano’s Mala vita, Jules Massenet’s Werther belatedly received its first performance. The year witnessed the births of conductors Artur Rodziński and Victor de Sabata and singers Dame Eva Turner, Renato Zanelli, and Ezio Pinza. Amidst this sequence of musically-significant occurrences, the work upon which Ruggero Leoncavallo’s reputation as a composer of opera would ultimately depend, Pagliacci, premièred at Milan’s Teatro dal Verme on 21 May 1892. In this operatic ‘slice of life,’ Leoncavallo altered the course of opera’s evolution, reacting to the waning of one style by instituting a new one. Less than a year after Pagliacci’s première, the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, signaled the end of one of the most productive eras in Italian opera. With works like Pagliacci, the idealized passions of Romanticism gave way to the grittier vigor and violence of verismo.

Scenically, Pagliacci is a piece that can be—and in several infamously unconventional stagings has been—wholly effective despite directorial misadventure. Set by Leoncavallo, whose libretto for the opera was inspired by his father’s recollection of a criminal investigation over which he presided as a judge, in Calabria in the latter half of the 1860s, Pagliacci’s betrayal, marital infidelity, unrequited love, and class strife are, when approached with intelligence and respect, easily relocated to virtually any combination of place and time. In Greensboro Opera’s production, the company’s General and Artistic Director David Holley sagaciously looked to Leoncavallo for guidance in staging Pagliacci. Originally devised for Sarasota Opera, the sets evoked a rural Italian village, in which the AT Jones-designed costumes and Trent Pcenicni’s wig and makeup wizardry believably arrayed the choristers as hardworking folk gathered in their town’s piazza to celebrate the Feast of Assumption and enjoy an evening of revelry.

Aided by Jeff Neubauer’s logical lighting designs and technical direction and attentive work from stage manager John Lipe and assistant stage managers Alexandra Scott and Eliya Watson, Holley presented Pagliacci as an exceptionally intimate drama. More so than in many productions, the townspeople on stage—and, by extension, the audience—were intruders in a very private realm. The dichotomy of personal strife playing out in a public setting has broad implications in Italian culture, and Holley’s direction exploited this ambivalence by focusing on blocking that simultaneously drew the observer into the drama and heighened the sense of encroachment. This is what verismo should achieve: as in this Pagliacci, the audience’s experience should be as visceral as the events that transpire on stage.

IN REVIEW: tenor JOEL SORENSEN as Beppe (left), baritone RICHARD ZELLER as Tonio (center), and soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderBeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]La commedia futile: tenor Joel Sorensen as Beppe (left), baritone Richard Zeller as Tonio (center), and soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

Like their counterparts who created the bel canto works of the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the masters of verismo are rarely praised for the inventiveness of their orchestrations, which are frequently dismissed as inferior to the scoring of Germanic composers influenced by Richard Wagner. In artfully adapting the full symphonic panoply of the late-Romantic orchestra to the opera house, Engelbert Humperdinck, Richard Strauss, and lesser-known exponents of Teutonic scoring had few peers originating south of the Alps, but Leoncavallo’s writing for the orchestra in Pagliacci exhibits deftness and imagination that sometimes eluded even Puccini.

Conductor Steven White led the Greensboro Opera Orchestra, here on excellent form, in a performance in which the composer’s creativity and ingenuity were fully apparent. In the orchestral introduction to the Prologo and the stirring Intermezzo, both beautifully played, Leoncavallo’s stimulating use of instrumental timbres and cleverly-wrought counterpoint were highlighted by White’s insightful reading of the score. Similarly, the choral writing was fantastically executed by the Greensboro Opera Chorus, trained by James Bumgardner and joined in this performance by members of the Burlington Boys Choir under the direction of Bill Allred. Brilliant throughout the performance, the choral singing in the tricky Chorus of the Bells was particularly laudable. White paced a taut, fast-moving account of the score but was also alert to the singers’ needs. Ensembles possessed clarity and energy, and the emotional impact of the opera’s conclusion was substantially increased by the subtlety with which White navigated the paths that lead to it.

Greensboro Opera productions typically feature talented singers in supporting rôles, and this  Pagliacci was enlivened by a cast without weakness. As the pair of villagers who interacted with Canio upon his troupe’s arrival, baritone Christian J. Blackburn and tenor Sean Toso sang handsomely, Blackburn voicing ‘Di’, con noi vuoi bevere un buon bicchiere sulla crocevia?’ with conviviality and Toso delivering ‘Bada, Pagliaccio, ci solo vuol restare per far la corte a Nedda!’ suggestively.

Having appeared in acclaimed productions in many prestigious opera houses throughout the world, tenor Joel Sorensen brought extensive experience to his portrayal of Beppe. In the opera’s opening scene, his acting was a masterclass in the art of vibrant but understated characterization. As Canio’s ire and suspicion threatened to upend his troupe’s rapport with the villagers, Sorensen’s Beppe sang ‘Padron! che fate! Per l’amor di Dio!’ incisively, as though only he was truly aware of the impending danger. In the Act Two play, the tenor sang  Arlecchino’s serenata delightfully, maintaining an ideal balance of comedy and musicality. He was a wonderfully wily Beppe, always present but never outstaying his welcome.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (left), baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Silvio (right), and tenor BRANDON SCOTT RUSSELL as Canio (right rear) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]Gli amanti illeciti e la spia: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (left), baritone David Pershall as Silvio (right), and tenor Brandon Scott Russell as Canio (right rear) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

In recent Greensboro Opera seasons, baritone David Pershall has earned the adulation of Triad audiences with expertly-sung portrayals of Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (the rôle in which he débuted at the Metropolitan Opera on 29 December 2015), Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen, and Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Silvio in Pagliacci is one of the rôles in which Pershall has found acclaim at San Francisco Opera, and his performance of the part in Greensboro Opera’s production of Leoncavallo’s opera was the work of a bonafide leading man in the tradition of the young Robert Merrill. In Silvio’s amorous rendezvous with Nedda, Pershall voiced ‘Sapea ch’io non rischiavo nulla’ with bravado, introducing his Silvio as an intrepid lover who wielded soaring high notes like sultry embraces.

Incensed by Nedda’s reluctance to surrender to his ardor, Pershall sang ‘Nedda, Nedda, rispondimi’ with wrenching immediacy, palpably evincing the young man’s yearning for his beloved. The erotic frenzy of his singing of ‘E allor perchè, di’, tu m’hai stregato’ was epitomized by a stunning top G. Watching Nedda’s performance in the Act Two play from the crowd, prepared to escape with her at the play’s conclusion, Pershall’s Silvio uttered ‘Io mi ritengo appena!’ and ‘Santo diavolo! Fa davvero’ with horror as he realized that Canio’s rage was no longer feigned. Rather than fleeing, this Silvio’s primary instinct was to protect Nedda—an act of chivalry that cost him his life. All of Pershall’s Greensboro Opera performances have been enjoyable, but his portrayal of Silvio, a rôle for which his vocal and dramatic gifts are ideal, reached a new height of artistic excellence.

In April 2019, renowned baritone Richard Zeller’s ingeniously comedic and touchingly human portrayal of Shakespeare’s mercurial Sir John was the heart of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff. The rôle of Falstaff was created in that opera’s 1893 première by Victor Maurel, who had also sung Tonio in the first performance of Pagliacci. Honoring Maurel’s legacy, Zeller followed his witty Falstaff with a menacing, melancholy Tonio. The baritone’s traversal of Pagliacci’s famous Prologo was majestic and multifaceted, his tonal colors metamorphosing with the changing moods of the text. The legato of his phrasing of ‘Un nido di memorie’ and ‘E voi, piuttosto che le nostre povere gabbane d’istrioni’ was a testament to Zeller’s Verdian credentials, as was his resonant top G. His transformation into the bitter, bating Tonio was an example of operatic acting of the highest order.

The loathing exuded by his breathless growl of ‘La pagherai! brigante!’ was terrifying, but it was in Tonio’s pivotal scene with Nedda that Zeller most compellingly demonstrated his consummate mastery of his rôle. His statement of ‘È colpa del tuo canto’ was touchingly sincere, and the pathos of his ‘Non rider, Nedda!’ affirmed that, for all his faults, this Tonio was a man, not a monster. The poignant beauty of tone with which Zeller voiced ‘So ben che diforme, contorto son io’ made the fury of ‘Per la Vergin pia di mezz’agosto, Nedda, io giuro’ and the venomous spite of ‘Cammina adagio e li sorprenderai!’ all the more shocking. Summoning the villagers to the play in Act Two, Zeller declaimed ‘Avanti, avanti, avanti!’ excitingly. In this performance, Taddeo lurked in the shadows, spying on Colombina’s assignation with Arlecchino like a panther ready to pounce. The opera’s ominous final line, ‘La commedia è finita,’ was here uttered by Tonio rather than Canio, and Zeller spoke the words unaffectedly, his Tonio pleased by his own treachery but also shattered by the brutality of Canio’s vengeance. In Zeller’s nuanced, strongly-sung performance, Tonio was unmistakably a descendent of Rigoletto, a decent man twisted by disability and rejection into a depraved but still pitiable figure who hates what he cannot love.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (left) and baritone RICHARD ZELLER as Tonio (right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]La moglie ed il mostro: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (left) and baritone Richard Zeller as Tonio (right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

A prototypical verismo leading lady, Leoncavallo’s Nedda is, from a dramatic perspective, one of the most difficult rôles in the soprano repertoire. The prevalence of poorly-sung performances of the part divulges that the music is also far from easy, but a number of singers who conquered the rôle’s musical demands failed to create a plausible, sympathetic character. Greensboro Opera’s Nedda, soprano Suzanne Kantorski, crafted an engaging portrait of this complicated, sometimes confounding character. With her straightforward singing of ‘Confusa io son!’ after Canio’s outburst about the mercilessness with which he would punish infidelity, Kantorski displayed a trait that many characterizations of Nedda lack: though she does not truly love Canio, she has no desire to deliberately hurt him. [The question of whether Canio is physically abusive to Nedda, which seems likely, was unanswered in this production, as it is in the score.] Recalling her mother’s stories of nature’s freedom, this Nedda voiced ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guardo!’ and ‘O che bel sole di mezz’agosto!’ rhapsodically. The trills that launch the Ballatella, ‘Stridono lassù, liberamente lanciati a vol,’ were honorably attempted, and the soprano vaulted notes above the stave with pinging precision.

The scorn with which Kantorski infused Nedda’s response to Tonio’s wooing erupted in her singing of ‘Ah! ah! Quanta poesia!’ and ‘Hai tempo a ridirmelo stasera, se brami,’ the latter marked ‘con elegenza’ and ironically rendered accordingly in this performance. It was an altogether different woman who subsequently sought refuge in Silvio’s arms. Kantorski voiced ‘Non mi tentar!’ delicately, her top B♭ gleaming, and the churning emotions of ‘Nulla scordai sconvolta e turbata’ received from her a surge of expressivity. The soprano joined Pershall in a gorgeous account of ‘Tutto scordiam!’ in which their voices intertwined with obvious carnal symbolism. Their lovemaking interrupted by Canio’s approach, Kantorski sought divine protection for her paramour with a meaningful ‘Aitalo Signor!’ From the start of the play in Act Two, Kantorski’s Colombina was the personification of barely-concealed defiance, her desperate attempt to lure Canio back into their scripted farce seeming coy and half-hearted. Her febrile top B, more slashing than the whip that she turned on Tonio, was the exclamation of a woman who demanded immediate liberty or death. Perhaps representing Nedda’s shame and unhappiness, Kantorski’s back was often to the house, lessening her connection with the audience, but she proposed viable solutions to a number of Nedda’s dramatic riddles and sang the rôle exceptionally well.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (center left) and tenor BRANDON SCOTT RUSSELL as Canio (center right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]I coniugi condanatti: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (center left) and tenor Brandon Scott Russell as Canio (center right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Paglacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

Owing to his widely-known, often-parodied aria ‘Vesti la giubba,’ Canio is arguably verismo’s most recognizable protagonist. Perhaps only Wagner’s valkyries are as familiar beyond the ranks of opera aficionados as Leoncavallo’s weeping clown. [The commedia dell’arte figures in Pagliacci are of course not clowns in the strictest modern sense, but when has popular culture worried about distorting historical distinctions?] From Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli to Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli, the legacies of past interpreters of Canio still haunt the opera, but Greensboro Opera’s Canio, tenor Brandon Scott Russell, never emulated another singer’s performance. Every tenor naturally wants to replicate Caruso’s diction, Gigli’s emotional candor, del Monaco’s vocal brawn, and Corelli’s peerless upper register, but Russell brought his own qualities to the rôle, one of the most admirable of which was evenness of tonal production that granted his lower register atypical force. The top G♯ that he dispatched in his delivery of ‘Itene al diavolo!’ was equally impressive, and his voicing of ‘Un grande spettacolo a ventitrè ore’ was a proclamation of vocal grandeur that suited the text. Russell sang ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi’ sensitively, the top A emotive rather than ostentatiously demonstrative, and his unassuming enunciation of ‘Adoro la mia sposa!’ was movingly frank.

Canio is changed by Tonio’s report of having seen Nedda with another man, and Russell’s portrayal became more volatile as Canio pursued Silvio, the tenor singing ‘Derisione e scherno!’ with scorching intensity. Doubt clouded Canio’s mind in ‘E se in questo momento,’ plaintively sung by Russell. His was a performance of ‘Recitar! Mentre presso dal delirio’ that was despondent but not overwrought. The sorrow that pervades ‘Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina’ did not tempt the singer to break or distort the melodic line, and, in this performance, there was no need to project ‘Ridi, Pagliaccio’ to the theater’s last row: Russell had drawn the audience into Canio’s innermost thoughts. In Act Two, the conflicting anger and sadness with which Russell voiced ‘Nome di Dio! quelle stesse parole!’ indicated the deterioration of Canio’s mental state. His singing of the cutting ‘No! Pagliaccio non son’ and the exquisite ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva’ recalled Richard Tucker’s unforgettable performances of this scene, Russell’s top B♭ effortlessly filling the auditorium with anguished but beautiful sound. There were isolated moments in which the tenor’s upper register was not projected as effectively as the voice’s lower reaches, but tonal quality was splendidly consistent. Russell’s was a young man’s Canio, sung with technical assurance that has become all too uncommon among singers of any age.

In opera, the term ‘warhorses’ is often used pejoratively, describing works that are performed so often as to have become disinteresting. Popularity can be damning, especially with would-be cognoscenti eager to prove their superiority by condemning scores that are loved by the masses. Pagliacci is undeniably a warhorse, and there are productions of it that merit disdain. Nevertheless, there are almost always legitimate reasons that explain a work’s popularity with the public and productions that remind audiences of why they love it. Performances of Pagliacci are plentiful, but performances of Pagliacci of the caliber exhibited by Greensboro Opera are exceedingly rare.