Opera is like molasses. It is painfully slow. Action takes forever to unfold. And because opera takes forever, things have to be exaggerated! Way more than in any other theatrical art form (For example, the “opera laugh.” You know what I’m talking about. Nobody laughs like that).
But opera makes up for its slowness with density. Accordingly, deep-seated ideas permeate Pagliacci, a late 19th century Italian opera with music and libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo. The kind of themes that make great dissertations: personal drama as public show in the form of comedy; rape and possession of women; men as “animals," etc.
Austinites can experience this phenomenon for themselves at the Austin Lyric Opera’s production of Pagliacci at the mighty big and fancy Long Center for the Performing Arts, directed by Garnett Bruce. A troupe of commedia dell’arte clowns caravan into a small 1930’s Italian village, where jealousy, marital drama, and eventually murder ensues. From the minute the first clown steps out onto the stage and says, “Excuse me: I am the Prologue,” the night is a journey beginning with fun comedy before heading down a dark, dark path.
Pagliacci is so Italian, and the Austin Lyric Opera absolutely embraces that in its production. The set (a town square surrounded by limestone, ivy-covered Italian villas) and the costumes (1890’s suits and dresses) match the opera in a way that feels organic and historically accurate.
Any of the moments when the whole cast is on stage — that's got to be at least 50 people — are striking. Hired acrobats first set the stage with crazy backflips, which surprisingly felt very…real. The action brought you to the place, the time and the scene. And in the second act, the clown costumes felt authentic commedia dell'arte: polka dot parkas, whiteface makeup, triangle hats and balloon pants.
However my favorite production aspect of the show was how set desigers made the a faded purple wooden Pagliacci wagon on the side of the stage compliment a purple background light that grew, mimicing a blue sky as the sun sets and moves into twilight. Not only was it really clever, it was downright pretty.
The top performer of the evening was definitely the main lead, tenor Carl Tanner as Canio, who plays the clown Pagliacci. Carl sells it so hard, and it is a hard sell. You dislike him, but you sympathize with his jealousy, insecurity and love. His booming voice carries the tragedy of the big famous Canio aria at the end of the first act, “Vesti la Giubba,” straight on to the reprise at the intense end of the second act.
Another standout moment was the love duet in the first act between the female lead, soprano Danielle Pastin as Nedda, and baritone Corey McKern as Silvio. There was this beautiful, delicate moment at the end when they become really quiet and grow the high note to this sweet apex that was just very touchingly sung. Plus the moments of sexual tension were…well, successfully sexy.
In fact, the other two clown leads, Daniel Sutin as opening clown Tonio and Philippe Pierce as Beppe, were also very impressive. As was the orchestra, conducted by Richard Buckley, though perhaps there were some balance issues in a few places (I couldn’t hear so well when some of the singers dropped to their lower registers, but that could have just been my seat).
Pagliacci is a short opera that runs about an hour and a half. One thing that can irritate me about opera is how long the audience ends up listening to just one composer, but part of what was refreshing about Austin Lyric Opera’s production was its decision to broaden the evening with an encore of songs.
For those wondering what encore songs will be sung, they’ll basically be doing three of the hits: First is Carl Tanner singing “Core ‘ngrato” (a Neapolitan Song), then Danielle Pastin sings “Ebben! Ne andrò lontana” from La Wally, and finally Carl Tanner, Danielle Pastin, and Philippe Pierce sing “Brindisi” from La Traviatta.
If you've never experienced the joy that is opera molasses, or maybe you just feel like getting dressed up and going out, Austin Lyric Opera's Pagliacci would be a great place to start.