Sunday, January 26, 2014

San Diego Opera’s Pagliacci Stands On Its Own

By Erica Miner

This season’s San Diego Opera Opening Night incited passion, drama, and nonstop thrills for the audience. The festive atmosphere at the Civic Theatre provided the perfect complement for the exciting intensity of one of opera’s grittiest dramas, Pagliacci.

The first opera to be written in nineteenth century verismo style, Pagliacci reflected an actual incident in the childhood of its composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo. The boy’s magistrate father adjudicated the case of an actor who killed his wife while they performed on stage. The event touched the composer deeply enough to inspire him to write what became his best known opera. Usually paired with another one-act opera such as Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, this Pagliacci worked beautifully on its own.

Director Andrew Sinclair, a favorite at SDO since his debut in 2000 and veteran of productions from Tosca to Aida (see my interview with him), delivered a rendering that was true to this opera’s stark, graphically violent nature. He probed the depths of his characters’ neuroses and weaknesses in this grim tale without resorting to melodrama or excess, intensifying the intrigue with creative techniques. Staging a pantomime between Nedda and Beppe during the Intermezzo and giving the final shocking line, “La Commedia è finita,” to baritone Tonio instead of the tenor protagonist Canio, were among the devices used to add poignancy and edginess to the already violent plot line. All of the lead singers managed to cut through the massive, almost Wagnerian orchestration with impressive robustness and energy.

Having debuted at SDO as the Duke in Rigoletto, tenor Frank Porretta gave an aggressive and multidimensional performance as the beleaguered clown Canio, alternating between dominance over his consort Nedda, abject self-pity, and helpless surrender to his inevitable fate. Vocally powerful, Porretta proved himself capable of mastering roles such as Radames, Otello and Calàf, which he has performed in major opera houses throughout the world.

Internationally recognized soprano Adina Nitescu is known for her impressive interpretations of such opera heroines as Tosca and Cio-Cio San. In her SDO debut, she created the perfect foil for Porretta’s Canio. Her temperamental, fiery rendering of Nedda convincingly portrayed her inner conflict, torn as she was between her duty to Canio and her inexplicable desire to take flight like the birds winging through the skies. Her imposing voice seemed a bit heavy for this role, but was a worthy match for Porretta’s powerful instrument.

Stephen Powell (see interview), who debuted in SDO’s Turandot in 1997 and has also performed here in the world premiere of The Conquistador, has sung at the Met Opera and other major houses in this hemisphere, and later this season will appear with Los Angeles Opera. In his first ever appearance in the role of Tonio, he captured the audience’s attention with his vocal beauty and brilliance from the opening note of the difficult Prologue - a tour-de-force for any baritone - to his final, “La Commedia è finita!” His highly nuanced rendering of the tormented hunchback vividly presented the dark, conflicted character’s desires for love and revenge, toying with the audience’s sympathies, or lack thereof, depending on the circumstances.

Familiar to San Diego audiences from his appearances in Romeo et Juliette, David Adam Moore was appropriately steamy as Nedda’s lover, Silvio. The young, multitalented Moore, who has appeared with major companies across the US, has a great love for art songs, and also composes, used his lush baritone to perform with persuasive passion and lust, equally adept at expressing his love for Nedda and his frustration at being powerless to help her.

Joel Sorensen’s Beppe added much-needed innocence to a cast of unforgivingly tough characters. Last seen in the past season’s Murder in the Cathedral, his light, pleasing tenor meshed seamlessly with the voices of whichever other singers he was supporting. His Intermezzo pantomime with Nedda gave new depth to Beppe, who often is depicted as a background character.

Yves Abel, who debuted here last season conducting The Daughter of the Regiment, handled the switch from romantic comedy to harsh realism without a hitch. His San Diego Symphony musicians proved more than capable of keeping up with the maestro’s extraordinarily lively tempi, especially in the opening Prelude. So, too, did Charles Prestinari’s choristers, who as usual excelled vocally as well as dramatically in both of their highly active scenes.

John Coyne did a fine job of creating the impression of an Italian village with a vast countryside in the background. His sets meshed beautifully with Ed Kotanen’s attractive costumes, which were simple for the townsfolk and boldly colored for the “play within a play” performers. Michael Whitfield’s lighting effectively portrayed the transition from a golden, peaceful sunlit day into evocative twilight and threatening evening darkness.

With such an exciting, passionate opening to this season, one must make sure to catch at least one of the remaining three performances of Pagliacci. After that, we look forward to SDO’s next offering, Donizetti’s enchanting comedy, The Elixir of Love.

But for now, La Commedia è finita.


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