10 June 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo — PAGLIACCI (M. Vickers, C. Cuervo, S. Koroneos, S. Kim, P. Suliandziga; Opera in Williamsburg, 6 June 2021)

IN REVIEW: tenor MATTHEW VICKERS as Canio (left) and soprano CATALINA CUERVO as Nedda (left) in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1945): PagliacciMatthew Vickers (Canio), Catalina Cuervo (Nedda), Stefanos Koroneos (Tonio), Suchan Kim (Silvio), Pavel Suliandziga (Beppe); Opera in Williamsburg Orchestra; Jorge Parodi, conductor [Naama Zahavi-Ely, producer; Marco Nisticò, stage director; Eric Lamp, costume designer; Opera in Williamsburg, Williamsburg Community Building, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; Sunday, 6 June 2021]

The world première of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme on 21 May 1892, was unquestionably an auspicious occasion. On the podium was the twenty-five-year-old Arturo Toscanini, already a seasoned operatic veteran. Portraying Canio, the doting but tragically insecure husband at the heart of Leoncavallo’s opera, was a son of Parma, tenor Fiorello Giraud, whose post-Pagliacci career included celebrated portrayals of Wagner rôles. Canio’s spirited wife Nedda was voiced by Austrian soprano Adelina Stehle, who was subsequently heard as Nannetta and Maria in the premières of Verdi’s Falstaff and Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff. The first Tonio, Victor Maurel, had created Iago in Verdi’s Otello five years earlier and would serve the composer again a year later, interpreting the title rôle in Falstaff. Mario Ancona, Milan’s Silvio, sang Tonio in Pagliacci’s Metropolitan Opera première on 11 December 1893, in which performance he was obliged to encore the opera’s Prologo.

Few performances enjoy the serendipitous circumstances of Pagliacci’s première, but every performance has the potential to be an event that will be long remembered by its audience. Under the leadership of the company’s founder and Artistic and General Director Naama Zahavi-Ely, Opera in Williamsburg’s all’aperto production of Pagliacci was a genuine occasion, both as a much-needed harbinger of the return of the Performing Arts after the long hiatus imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and as an exhilarating realization of Leoncavallo’s score that enabled the Williamsburg audience to experience the piece much as the spectators in the opera witness the performance by Canio and his traveling troupe. Produced by Zahavi-Ely with infallible understanding of the work’s musical and histrionic challenges, the staging, presented on the grounds of the Williamsburg Community Building, involved the observer in the drama with rare immediacy, imaginatively capitalizing on the physical setting by fostering an impromptu performance’s atmosphere of spontaneity.

IN REVIEW: the porch of Williamsburg Community Building, setting for Opera in Williamsburg's June 2021 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]La scena del crimine: the porch of Williamsburg Community Building, the setting for Opera in Williamsburg’s June 2021 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

Allied with Eric Lamp’s vibrant, whimsical costume designs, virtually a character in the drama in their own right, Marco Nisticò’s direction provided the narrative clarity and consistent momentum upon which the success of a performance of Pagliacci depends. The performance space necessitated a small-scaled approach, but Nisticò’s staging intuitively utilized the intimacy of the venue to intensify the opera’s emotional impact. Performances of verismo repertoire too often lack the realism that defines the genre. By contrast, this Pagliacci was shaped not by exaggerated melodrama but by attention to details of the libretto and score. The troupe’s traditional donkey cart was replaced to splendid effect in Williamsburg by a Chrysler, their arrival heralded by enthusiastic sounding of the vehicle’s horn. After being discovered during her rendezvous with Silvio, Nedda’s reaction to Canio threatening her with a knife was not overwrought as it is in some performances: rather, Nisticò and his cast conveyed that the depth of Nedda’s concern for Silvio’s safety suggests that Canio’s violent rage was hardly unknown to her. Throughout the performance, Nisticò’s work yielded moments in which Leoncavallo’s theatrical adroitness was more apparent than it often is in more elaborate productions.

Opera in Williamsburg’s Music Director Jorge Parodi conducted the performance with emphasis on the lyricism in Leoncavallo’s music, freeing singers and instrumentalists to focus on subtleties of phrasing without decreasing the impact of the opera’s familiar dramatic tumult. Each scene was paced with tempi that exhibited thorough acquaintance with the score and the singers’ individual voices and interpretations of their rôles. The choral contributions to the opera’s opening scene were sung by the soloists, and the Chorus of the Bells was understandably omitted. Parodi’s conducting rendered the absence of this integral part of the score surprisingly inconsequential, maintaining the vitality of the public scenes by accentuating the orchestral pulse that propels the music. Parodi’s verismo instincts were astute, but there was also bel canto in his sculpting of melodic lines, particularly in the Intermezzo. With this performance, Parodi affirmed that corpuscular Italianate passion does not preclude elegance.

Like the efficacy of the modest staging, the reduced orchestration necessitated by the performing conditions facilitated uncommon appreciation of the ingenuity of the composer’s scoring. The fleet playing of assistant conductor and pianist Evgenia Truksa made the lack of a harp unnoticeable, and her colleagues in the pit—Simon Lapointe (violin), Peter Greydanus (cello), Christina Hughes (flute), Shawn Buck (clarinet), and Cody Halquist (French horn)—proved equal to Leoncavallo’s most daunting challenges and the stifling heat (94° F at the start of the performance). The eloquent, energizing sounds that emerged from the orchestra validated the legitimacy of Parodi’s measured handling of the score, each player’s performance spotlighting aspects of the music that are obscured in lavish productions.

IN REVIEW: tenor PAVEL SULIANDZIGA as Beppe in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © 2021 by Joseph Newsome]La canzonetta d’Arlecchino: tenor Pavel Suliandziga as Beppe in Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 6 June 2021
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

Whether depicting the character’s attempts at preserving calm amongst his fellow thespians or playing his part in the ill-fated comedy, tenor Pavel Suliandziga was a Beppe whose bright sounds shone in the opera’s dark psychological context. Demonstrating his own work ethic as an example intended to quell Tonio’s bitterness and calm Canio’s rage, this Beppe was the opera’s dulcet-toned voice of reason, unnerved but never wholly overpowered by the devolving situation in which he found himself. Suliandziga sang Arlecchino’s serenata, ‘O Colombina, il tenero fido Arlecchin,’ with boyish charm and glistening top As, gleefully projecting the humor of the ironic pantomime. His earnest efforts at averting violence thwarted, Suliandziga’s Beppe was discernibly shattered by the horror of the opera’s grisly final scene, the young tenor touchingly imparting that, for all their failings, Canio and Nedda were dearer to him than mere colleagues.

IN REVIEW: baritone SUCHAN KIM as Silvio (left) and soprano CATALINA CUERVO as Nedda (right) in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]Gl’ amanti ferventi: baritone Suchan Kim as Silvio (left) and soprano Catalina Cuervo as Nedda (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 6 June 2021
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

The embodiment of amorous youth in a smart searsucker suit, baritone Suchan Kim’s Silvio was the dapper romantic figure that the drama requires him to be. Pausing to gaze upon his lover before sweeping in for his assignation with Nedda, this Silvio seemed enthralled anew by her. The erotic tension in their duet radiated from the stage, electrifying Kim’s ardent singing of the andantino ‘Sapea ch’io non rischiavo nulla.’ He subsequently sang the andantino amoroso ‘Decidi il mio destin’ with tonal beauty and superb line. Kim was little troubled by Silvio’s many top Fs and pair of top Gs, the voice full and free throughout the range except in a handful of passages in which slight constriction affected the upper register. The terror that seized Silvio as he saw Nedda slain by Canio unsheathed the steel in Kim’s voice, but his defiance could not overcome Canio’s mania. Kim fully conquered the demands of Silvio’s music, however, his vocalism as apt for the rôle as his intrepid acting.

IN REVIEW: baritone STEFANOS KORONEOS as Tonio in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]Ecco il prologo: baritone Stefanos Koroneos as Tonio in Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 6 June 2021
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

The rugged, sinewy voice of baritone Stefanos Koroneos glistened and growled in Leoncavallo’s music for the volatile Tonio, both the perpetrator and a victim of his own treachery. There was much poetry in the baritone’s delivery of the Prologo, his delicate voicing of ‘Un nido di memorie in fondo all’anima cantava un giorno’ and the andante cantabile ‘E voi, piuttosto che le nostre povere gabbane d’istrioni’ partnered with powerful readings of more extroverted passages. The traditional interpolated top G was not reached without effort, but the note was undeniably thrilling. The ambiguous joviality with which Koroneos voiced Tonio’s lines in the opera’s first scene gave way to bitterness when he snarled ‘La pagherai! brigante!’ at his tormentor.

In the scene with Nedda, Koroneos sang ‘È colpa del tuo canto’ affectionately, conveying the scope of his surrender to Nedda’s alluring song, and the pathos of his voicing of the cantabile sostenuto ‘So ben che difforme’ was affecting. Nedda’s derision reignited the simmering malevolence, producing a caustic statement of ‘Per la Vergin pia di mezz’agosto.’ As Taddeo in the comedy, Koroneos ensured that Tonio’s sinister intentions were apparent, no matter how jocund the mood. His articulation of the famed ‘La commedia è finita’ unmistakably disclosed gloating self-satisfaction, but, like Suliandziga’s Beppe, the weight of the tragedy that he instigated also shown in Tonio’s demeanor. Koroneos portrayed Tonio as a man whose physical maladies had warped but not weakened his mind, his vocalism, forceful but occasionally wanting strength at the bottom of the range, revealing the crippling insecurity at the heart of the character’s iniquity.

IN REVIEW: soprano CATALINA CUERVO as Nedda in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]La donna oppressa: soprano Catalina Cuervo as Nedda in Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 6 June 2021
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

Equally vivacious and vulnerable, soprano Catalina Cuervo’s Nedda was credible as Canio’s unhappy wife, the quarry of Tonio’s libidinous pursuit, and the object of Silvio’s infatuation. Emotionlessly enunciating ‘Confusa io son!’ after Canio’s menacing outburst about his wife’s infidelity, Cuervo’s Nedda insinuated from the start that any love that she once felt for Canio was supplanted by pity. The unfulfilled wife’s imagination rekindled by the marvels of nature, her singing of ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guardo!’ coruscated with wonderment. Deploying a truly ‘dolce’ top A and laudable attempts at the trills, her account of the ballatella, ‘Stridono lassù,’ was a rousing declaration of independence that seemed all the more brilliant when the atmosphere of reawakening was shattered by Tonio’s intrusion. Cuervo drained all color from her voice to sing ‘Sei là? credea che te ne fossi andato!’ as Tonio approached and then hurled ‘Hai tempo a ridirmelo stassera, se brami!’ at him with disgust.

The edge on the voice with which Cuervo’s Nedda lashed at Tonio softened into a seductive caress upon Silvio’s entrance, though even the bliss of her reverie was tinged with apprehension. In their piquant duet, Cuervo and Kim created sparks with an economy of motion, acting with their voices and faces. The soprano’s smoldering voicing of ‘Non mi tentar!’ divulged the profundity of Nedda’s misery, her ecstatic top B♭s expressing her longing for escape from her life with Canio, but the wrenching desperation of her cry of ‘Aiutalo, Signor!’ as Canio trailed Silvio intimated that the price of freedom would be high.

An unusually sultry, provocative Colombina, Cuervo sang the gavotta, ‘Guarda, amor mio, che splendida cenetta preparai,’ teasingly at first. Each repetition of the jaunty melody grew more frenzied as the sincerity of Canio’s threats became obvious. Refusing to identify Silvio as Nedda’s paramour, Cuervo struck the unhinged Canio with stunning top Bs. There was in this Nedda’s death an aura of inevitability, as though she knew from the opera’s first scene that the only possible source of her deliverance was the blade of Canio’s knife. In this performance, Nedda’s death was a conscious act of reclaiming liberty, acted by Cuervo with poignant simplicity.

IN REVIEW: tenor MATTHEW VICKERS as Canio in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]Il marito sofferente: tenor Matthew Vickers as Canio in Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 6 June 2021
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

Tenor Matthew Vickers reminded the Williamsburg audience that, though correct in a literal sense, ‘clown’ is too one-dimensional a translation for ‘pagliaccio.’ From his first entrance, this Canio conveyed that, as the ancient Greeks surmised, comedy and tragedy are inseparably intertwined. Canio’s pride in his craft emanated from Vickers’s broadly-phrased singing of ‘Un grande spettacolo a ventitrè ore.’ This was followed by a reading of ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi’ that was at once tender and portentous. With the brief reprise of ‘A ventitrè ore,’ capped with an arresting interpolated top B, Canio’s good humor momentarily exorcised the demons of jealousy and suspicion. Finding Nedda in Silvio’s arms, the gnawing doubts returned, prompting Vickers to voice ‘Derisione e scherno!’ with startling vehemence.

The scene in which Canio laments an actor’s responsibility to the audience, requiring him to maintain a frivolous façade, is one of opera’s most hackneyed episodes, but, declaiming ‘Recitar! Mentre presso dal delirio non so più quel che dico e quel che faccio!’ with mesmerizing gravitas, Vickers communicated the psychological power that has garnered the esteem of generations of singers and listeners. His singing of ‘Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina’ displayed an ideal combination of vocal metal and expressive sensitivity, limning Canio’s despair without resorting to excessive tears.

Casting pretense aside, the tenor’s ‘No! Pagliaccio non son’ was frighteningly explosive, but Vickers adhered to Leoncavallo’s cantabile espressivo marking in his traversal of the stirring ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva,’ the character’s dismay and hopelessness surging through the singer’s top B♭. With a glance at the exultant Tonio as Nedda lay dead at his feet, Canio movingly acknowledged having played his part in a twisted contest of wills. Canio is an iconic rôle that has been interpreted by a progression renowned tenors, of whose company Vickers declared himself to be worthy.

The panache with which all of the artists involved with this production coped with the sweltering heat was nothing short of heroic, but the most searing thing in Virginia’s Historic Triangle on this Sunday afternoon was Opera in Williamsburg’s Pagliacci.