|SeungHyeon Baek, James Chamberlain, Megan Nielson, and Mark A. B. Lawrence|
In a small village in Calabria in the 1860's, townsfolk would wait all year for the traveling circus to come and entertain them with circus acts and commedia dell'arte performances. The stories involved stock characters and reflected familiar themes with which they could identify. Last night at The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side, we watched Opera Ithaca's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci with the same absorption that they must have felt.
We were amazed that Ithaca, a small city with a population of 30,000, could support such a fine company. This is, in fact, their fourth season and they have been presenting old favorites as well as new works.
As Director, Zachary James pulled some rabbits out of the hat, proving our point that singers (he's a well-known bass) make the best directors. It was impressive that the company, accustomed to performing this work in a more spacious venue in Ithaca with a chorus of 30, was able to adapt to the small space available for just one night here in New York City.
The Circus Ensemble from Ithaca added a great deal of color to the production with an aerialist, jugglers, unicyclist, and acrobats showing their stuff during the instrumental interludes. It was easy to feel transported to another time and place. As a matter of fact, we were reminded of a decades ago experience on a vacant lot in Little Italy when just such a troupe from Italy performed. We know not if such troupes still exist.
Musical values were fine all around with Maestro Thomas Bagwell playing the piano reduction during the instrumental parts and turning the piano over to Chorus Master Zeek Smith when it was time to conduct the singers. To our amusement, both pianists joined in a kazoo duet!
The prologue was sung by SeungHyeon Baek, one of our favorite baritones; he sang with such gorgeous tone and phrasing and so much commitment to the role that we were immediately drawn in. His acting, as the sneaky trouble-maker and would be rapist Tonio, was so effective that we didn't remember how much we like him personally until the opera ended. Like Rigoletto, Tonio has lived a life of rejection and scorn and we can even feel some sympathy for his plight. Even in the play-within-the-opera, he portrays a servant in love with Colombina and is scorned. Life and art, art and life!
In the role of Nedda, who plays Colombina in the commedia dell'arte performance, soprano Megan Nielson (well remembered as a fine Tatiana in Utopia Opera's production of Eugene Onegin) turned in an excellent performance. Notable was her full rich tone and affecting acting. Just watching her increasing panic as the drama progressed was a lesson in acting.
Her "Stridono lassu" was beautifully rendered but we have never before heard that aria accompanied by an aerialist on a trapeze. We admit that it was a bit distracting but, on the other hand, it did express the freedom of the birds which Nedda so envies. The poor girl has come to resent the man who had rescued her from starvation and given her a home and a job and his love. But he is also possessive and she yearns for freedom. Let's call it a case of hostile dependency.
The role of Canio was performed by tenor James Chamberlain who exhibited a sizable voice that should mature nicely. Tenor Mark A.. B. Lawrence performed the role of Beppe who, in the play-within-the-opera, becomes Colombina's lover and sings a lovely serenade. Colombina's real-life lover Silvio was performed by baritone Erik Angerhofer.
Since you dear readers will not get a chance to see this original production (unless you travel to Ithaca), we have no qualms about sharing the unusual ending, which left us shaken. No knives were drawn. Canio chokes Nedda until she cries out for help from Silvio and he kills Silvio. But Nedda, with her last ounce of strength kills Canio. The last man standing is Tonio who utters the final line "La commedia e finita".
This line is sometimes spoken by Canio but we liked Mr. James' ending. It made perfect sense. Mr. James was also responsible for the colorful costuming and simple set--well lit by Ron Ziomek. Dotty Petersen was Hair and Makeup Designer. We would have loved seeing the full production in Ithaca with the extensive circus contributions but feel grateful that we got to see and hear the trimmed down version. The youthful audience packed the space and we are always thrilled to see young people enjoying themselves so enthusiastically.
(c) meche kroop