It was Halloween. The wind was howling, and strange creatures were prowling Sarasota’s downtown streets. But inside the Sarasota Opera House, a triumphant cast of singers and instrumentalists were recreating Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s 122 year old classic, “Pagliacci.” No matter what kind of costumes the Halloween revelers chose to wear, none was as frightening or realistic as the tragic Commedia dell’arte scenario being reenacted on the stage of the Sarasota Opera House, because Leoncavallo knew how to turn theatrical mayhem into verismo intensity, bridging the gap between staged drama and real life tragedy.
This “Pagliacci” is a revival of an earlier Sarasota Opera production. We’d seen it before but this was revitalized. In fact, it was one of the best productions of this classic we’ve seen because all the important facets came together: excellent singing, believable acting, staging that drew us into the action, lighting (Ken Yunker), costumes (Howard Tsvi Kaplan), and scenery (David Gordon), that looked fresh and complemented each other, and an orchestra that gave support to the singers and made this an opera that coalesced into what opera should be.
It was the Sarasota Orchestra, moonlighting with the Opera, that lent its super sound to what was happening on stage. And it was Sarasota Opera Artistic Director, Victor deRenzi, who held it all together, keeping the proper balance between principals and chorus on stage and players in the pit, like a well-oiled machine.
Stage director, Stephanie Sundine managed, through little details that made all the difference, to turn a hard-to-believe 19th century verismo Italian opera into a piece of drama that could easily happen today. Jealousies, misrepresentations, deceptions and deceits are timeless and, when they’re set to passionate music, they became alive in Sundine’s very able and imaginative operatic concept.
The music, itself, is timeless and well-known. There are few people who haven’t heard Pagliaccio’s famous aria, “Vesti la giubba,” as the actor, in clown’s white face sings about the horror of trying to make people laugh while he’s crying, inside. Michael Robert Hendrick, took on the tragic role of Canio, the head of the traveling company of actors, whose real-life sufferings are mirrored by Pagliaccio, the cuckolded character he plays on stage. You’ll remember him as the brilliant acting-singer whose portrayal of Lennie in the operatic setting of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” at Sarasota Opera a few years ago, brought us all to tears. This time, he brought a depth of character seldom seen in this role. Rather than riding on the gleaming quality of his voice, as most tenors do in “Pagliacci,” Hendrick added his profound ability to embody a role, making his Canio more than just a striking voice. Yes, he was often a little too on top of the pitch but we assume his sharp intonation was due to opening night excitement and these ears will take sharp over flat, anytime.
Veronica Mitina’s Nedda, Canio’s wife who cheats on him on stage and off, was beautifully rendered, not only in her big aria, “Qual fiamma” but, especially in her on-stage musical and dramatic relationships with her on and off-stage lovers. Hers is a big, sometimes metallic voice and there were times we wanted more float and nuance in her singing but the fact that she, like Hendrick, embodied her role made her persona colorful enough that we figured the nuances would come with future performances.
We’ve never heard Marco Nistico, the evening’s Tonio, sound better. His opening Prologue was resounding. And later, as he became the hunchback, Taddeo in the play-within-the play, his evil image matched his resilient, resonant voice.
Nathan Munson, the studio artist who took on the roles of the actor Peppe (aka Beppe in other productions but then, what’s in a name…) and Arlecchino in the play, made my ears stand up with his first line. He may be a studio artist this year but he’s a tenor to listen for in the future. That is a voice to reckon with.
And Brian James Myer, a young baritone from Las Vegas, also making his Sarasota Opera debut, handled his part as Silvio, Nedda’s real-life lover, with both voice and character to make him stand out in the crowd.
The chorus was trained and blended to perfection by Roger Bingaman, with just enough stage business to make us believe they were villagers, anticipating a fun day at the theater that was turned, inexplicably, into mayhem and murder.
On another note: Instead of pairing “Pagliacci” with “Cavalleria Rusticana,” as most companies do, Sarasota Opera decided to offer only the Leoncavallo but, to round-out the abbreviated evening and give a nod to Mascagni, the Orchestra and deRenzi had some stunning moments of their own in the spotlight with the Intermezzos from the composer’s “L’amico Fritz” and “Cavalleria rusticana.” A nice touch and a great way to highlight the instrumentalists.