RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): Pagliacci — Carl Tanner (Canio), Melinda Whittington (Nedda), Kidon Choi (Tonio), Takaoki Onishi (Silvio), Jason Karn (Beppe), Adam Dengler (Un contadino), Jerry Hurley (Un contadino); Kidznotes, North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Keitaro Harada, conductor [Octavio Cardenas, stage director; Tláloc López-Watermann, lighting designer; Constantine Kritikos, set designer; Glenn Avery Breed, costume designer; Martha Ruskai, makeup and wig designer; North Carolina Opera, Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 24 January 2020]
Few people who have spent time in their midst have failed to observe outward manifestations of opera singers’ legendary superstitions. From avoiding certain situations to employing talismans, some singers perpetuate operatic lore, preferring the perceived safety of a curse thwarted to the uncertainty of a curse ignored. In the early years of sound recording, there was a fear among singers that, like withdrawals from a bank account, projecting their voices into gramophone horns irreparably eroded their vocal endowments. It is reported that not even Enrico Caruso, one of the most celebrated pioneers of recording, approached the acoustical preservation of his voice without apprehension, yet he recorded Canio’s familiar aria ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci no fewer than three times in five years.
Canio was indisputably one of Caruso’s finest rôles, one that he sang 116 times for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but what, aside from obvious commercial motivations [the 1902, 1904, and 1907 recordings collectively sold more than a million copies, still an impressive tally but a remarkable accomplishment in the first decade of the Twentieth Century], compelled him to record ‘Vesti la giubba’ repeatedly? [Interestingly, the first Canio, Parmesan tenor Fiorello Giraud, recorded excerpts from his Wagnerian repertoire, arias from Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Bizet’s Carmen, the popular Berceuse from Godard’s Jocelyn, and several Italian songs but none of Canio’s music.] A master of the music and an early beneficiary of global celebrity, Caruso clearly recognized aspects of Canio’s musical characterization that appealed to listeners. In the Twenty-First Century, Caruso‘s 1907 recording of ‘Vesti la giubba’ continues to be frequently downloaded and streamed, mirroring Pagliacci‘s indefatigable popularity with audiences. Perhaps Caruso was uncommonly prescient; or perhaps he merely knew good music when he encountered it.
The world première of Pagliacci in Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme on 21 May 1892, solidified Leoncavallo‘s reputation as one of Italy‘s preeminent composers and provided a cornerstone for the repertoire of the fledgling operatic genre of verismo. In its operatic context, the term ‘warhorse’ has developed a pejorative connotation, but, when used to describe Pagliacci, it can be interpreted as an affectionate moniker applied to a work deployed in battles against the disappearance of the passion that engendered Italian opera. Directed with commendable straightforwardness by Octavio Cardenas, North Carolina Opera’s staging of Pagliacci outfitted this warhorse with familiar but fresh vestments. Especially admirable was Cardenas’s blocking: principals and choristers moved convincingly, not in the manner of wooden figures on a carousel, predictably but aimlessly entering and exiting, but as denizens of a functioning community. There was a naturalness of movement that lent the drama a gripping aura of spontaneity. Cardenas’s Pagliacci epitomized the finest qualities of traditional productions. By faithfully but imaginatively observing the dictates of Leoncavallo’s libretto and score, this staging exuded an authenticity that productions that seek inspiration beyond the composer’s work often lack.
Illuminated by Tláloc López-Watermann’s typically effective lighting, Constantine Kritikos’s scenic designs, the appropriately middle-class costumes by Glenn Avery Breed, and Martha Ruskai’s attractive wigs and makeup vividly transformed the Raleigh stage into Leoncavallo’s Calabrian village. Both the grandeur of the public scenes and the intimacy of Nedda’s encounters with Tonio and Silvio were captivatingly realized, the former retaining clarity in moments of greatest tumult and the latter perceptively limning the complex relationships among the characters. Pagliacci can be interpreted as a variation on the oft-explored theme of artists’ isolation from society, but this production embodied the objective announced by Tonio in the Prologo. Their commedia dell’arte theatrics notwithstanding, the principals in this Pagliacci were ordinary people facing extraordinary but recognizably universal troubles, their lives neither glorified nor derided.
Coniugi condannati: soprano Melinda Whittington as Nedda (center left) and tenor Carl Tanner as Canio (center right) in North Carolina Opera’s January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]
Under the baton of conductor Keitaro Harada, North Carolina Opera’s choral and orchestral forces distinguished themselves with superb performances. Virtually every instrument in the orchestra is subjected to writing that tests its player’s technique and preparedness, and, the instrumentalists skillfully cued by Harada, there were very few moments in which the orchestra’s intonational and rhythmic precision faltered. Scott MacLeod’s work with the North Carolina Opera Chorus, assisted in this production by Nick Malinowski’s training of the Kidznotes children’s chorus, yielded exhilarating but unerringly musical accounts of the difficult Chorus of the Bells and the opera’s final scene. Performances by larger companies with long-established acquaintances with Leoncavallo’s music can rarely boast of choral singing and orchestral playing superior to those heard in North Carolina Opera’s Pagliacci.
Returning to Raleigh, where he conducted North Carolina Opera’s 2019 production of Bizet’s Carmen, Maestro Harada displayed a thorough and uncommonly discerning understanding of the nuances of Leoncavallo’s score. The music‘s corpuscular verismo thundered from stage and pit, but Harada’s handling of lyrical passages revealed the bel canto that blossoms within the score. The Andante cantabile section of Tonio’s Prologo, the opening of Nedda’s Ballatella, Silvio’s outpouring of affection, and Canio’s ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva’ were shaped with poetic delicacy, the conductor encouraging the singers to communicate not just the literal meanings but also the emotional subtleties of the words via expansive, unhurried phrasing. These episodes of relative introspection intensified the shock of the opera’s violent climax, Canio’s ultimate acts of vengeance depicted as the primal response of a broken man to circumstances that he cannot alter. Even when haphazardly conducted, Pagliacci is invariably entertaining and often exciting. Harada’s exquisite conducted proved that, when paced with absolute cognizance of its structures, sentiments, and subtexts, Pagliacci can also be genuinely moving.
Heightening the carnival-like atmosphere of the commedia dell’arte players’ fateful visit to the unnamed town in which the drama transpires, acrobats Rachel Webberman and Matthew Berno brought off their gravity-defying feats with feline grace. Baritone Adam Dengler and tenor Jerry Hurley sang impressively as the pair of villagers who extended their community’s hospitality to Canio, evincing the townspeople‘s pride at hosting the venerable thespians. Tenor Jason Karn was a charismatic Beppe in Opera Carolina’s 2016 production of Pagliacci and was no less charming in Raleigh. That he sang the top As in Arlecchino’s serenata so effortlessly whilst perched on a worryingly unsteady utility pole was indicative of the musical and dramatic unflappability with which he portrayed the hardworking, level-headed Beppe.
The scene for Nedda and her paramour Silvio contains some of Leoncavallo’s most impassioned writing, the lovers’ illicit rendezvous inspiring the composer to create several of Italian opera’s most luridly erotic pages. In baritone Takaoki Onishi’s performance in Raleigh, the depth of Silvio’s love for Nedda and the magnetism that drew her to him were palpable. Declaiming ‘Nedda, Nedda, decidi il mio destin’ with ardor and handsomely virile tone, Onishi characterized Silvio as a man whose desire for Nedda was unquestionably carnal but also viscerally spiritual. There was a pervasive sense of yearning in this Silvio’s singing, as though he was as desperate to escape from his own struggles as Nedda was to gain her freedom, but the true hallmarks of Onishi’s vocalism were the evenness of registers, the youthful ease of his ascents above the stave, and the consistent beauty of his timbre. Aided by Harada, he sang ‘E allor perchè, di’, tu m’hai stregato’ arrestingly, caressing the line with ideally-supported mezza voce, and the hushed ending of the duet with Nedda was gorgeous. In Onishi’s performance, Silvio’s lunge at Canio in the opera’s final moments was more anguished than threatening: Nedda having been slain before his eyes, his life was already at its end. Vulnerability was at the core of Onishi’s characterization, and, unusually, Silvio’s death was as wrenching as Nedda’s.
Similarly, keen focus on all of the character’s psychological facets was the foundation of baritone Kidon Choi’s portrayal of the pernicious but pitiable Tonio. From the first words of the Prologo, it was apparent that Choi is a very gifted singing actor, but he surpassed his own standards with each successive phrase. At once bemused, flippant, scornful, and piercingly sincere, he sang the music with immediacy that recalled Giuseppe Taddei’s saturnine portrayal and soared without strain to the interpolated top A♭ and G. Throughout Canio’s banter with the townsfolk, Choi’s Tonio lurked on the periphery of the action, biding his time. Finally alone with Nedda, he declared his love with an outcast’s awkward earnestness, voicing ‘So ben che lo scemo contorto son io’ with touching tenderness. Wounded by the viciousness of Nedda’s rejection, he flung ‘Per la croce di Dio, bada che puoi pagarla cara!’ at her like lasso with which he intended to ensnare her. Choi played Taddeo’s part in the farsa with the self-congratulatory artifice of a man who feels his grip on revenge tightening. Tonio’s sadistic laughter as the curtain fell on the scene of Canio cradling Nedda’s lifeless body was chilling. Dramatically, Choi was an atypically expressive Tonio who repulsed all the more for having divulged the humanity of which he was capable. Vocally, he sang the rôle with the sort of inherent suitability that has been seldom heard in this music in the past quarter-century.
Pagliaccio non ride: tenor Carl Tanner as Canio in North Carolina Opera’s January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]
In the course of Pagliacci’s nearly-thirteen-decade performance history, the opera’s leading lady has been sung by an array of voices that parallels the diversity of singers’ interpretations of the rôle. In many ways, soprano Melinda Whittington’s performance with North Carolina Opera was often reminiscent of the free-spirited Nedda of Maralin Niska. Emboldened by her longing for liberation from her failed marriage, this Nedda’s resolve was undermined by her fear for Silvio’s safety. Whittington’s ruminative utterance of ‘Confusa io son’ in the wake of Canio’s ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi’ echoed this ambiguity, the young woman’s trepidation visible beyond the façade of her fortitude. As Nedda sought refuge in memories of her childhood, Whittington sang ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guardo’ with abandon, imparting the wonderment that surges from the music. Leoncavallo sanctioned omission of the trills that launch the Ballatella, but Raleigh’s Nedda resorted to no amendments, valiantly attempting the trills and resolving her rousing ‘Stridono lassù’ with a radiant top A♯.
The contempt with which Whittington declaimed ‘Hai l’animo siccome il corpo tuo difforme, lurido!’ was more crippling than Tonio’s physiological challenges, Nedda’s disgust hurled at him with vehemence. In the subsequent duet with Silvio, however, the soprano’s performance manifested warmth and femininity. Her voicing of ‘Non mi tentar! Vuoi tu perder la mia vita?’ throbbed with anxiety. Whittington metamorphosed her Nedda into a comical Colombina without jeopardizing the caliber of her vocalism. The commedia dell’arte feigning shattered by Canio’s rage, this Nedda was visibly affected by her husband’s despair: she may never have loved him, but she seemed to at least regret hurting him. Crowning Nedda’s final defiance with a brilliant top B, Whittington depicted the character’s death with startling realism. Occasionally, the wide intervals in Leoncavallo’s writing compromised the soprano’s vocal support, focus on projecting the upper register diminishing the solidity of tones in the lower octave of the range, but Whittington both sang and acted intelligently and poignantly.
It was only six months after his professional début that Fiorello Giraud introduced Canio to the world. Though the last years of his career were largely devoted to singing Heldentenor repertoire, it was as Canio that Giraud made his most lasting contribution to operatic history. Continuing Giraud’s legacy, Canio was an iconic rôle for Italian tenors from Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, and Giovanni Martinelli to Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and Carlo Bergonzi. It was not until 4 January 1908, fourteen years after Pagliacci’s company première on 11 December 1893, that an American tenor, the Kentucky-born Riccardo Martin, first donned Canio’s greasepaint at the Metropolitan Opera. Thereafter, American tenors of the caliber of James McCracken, Herman Malamood, and Richard Tucker have portrayed Canio to acclaim throughout the world.
A lauded exponent of parts as demanding but different as Radamès in Verdi’s Aida, Calàf in Puccini’s Turandot, and Saint-Saëns’s Samson, the last of which he sang in North Carolina Opera’s 2018 concert performance of Samson et Dalila, Carl Tanner brought to Raleigh’s production of Pagliacci a refined, powerful portrayal of Canio. Presenting himself to the audiences on stage and in the auditorium, Tanner voiced ‘Un grande spettacolo a ventitré ore’ electrifyingly, the metal in the voice shimmering. The villager’s quip about marital infidelity striking an aggravated nerve, menace blended with pain in his singing of ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi.’ The stunning top B with which Tanner’s Canio reminded the villagers of the hour of the evening’s performance befitted a consummate showman.
Lured by Tonio into interrupting Nedda’s assignation with Silvio, this Canio ruthlessly pursued first his wife’s fleeing lover and then her confession of the affair. Tanner sang ‘E se in questo momento qui scannata non t’ho’ as though Canio was barely able to articulate the words. Canio’s soliloquy is one of opera’s most familiar—and most parodied—scenes, but, prefaced by a forceful but unexaggerated traversal of ‘Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio,’ Tanner’s performance achieved Shakespearean eloquence. He sang ‘Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina’ gloriously, exclaiming ‘Ridi, Pagliaccio!’ vigorously but without overwrought histrionics.
Jettisoning pretense in the opera’s final scene, this Canio’s declaration of ‘No, Pagliaccio non son’ was terrifying, but it was with his singing of ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva’ that Tanner most tellingly bared Canio’s soul. Deprived of reason by blinding pride and fury, Canio fulfilled the rôle assigned to him by Tonio’s machinations. In Tanner’s portrayal, killing Nedda was both Canio’s crime and his punishment, and the conspicuous remorse in the tenor’s adoring embrace of Nedda’s corpse markedly intensified the opera’s tragic ending. At the center of a cast without weakness, Tanner was the pillar upon which North Carolina Opera built a spectacular Pagliacci.