Seattle Opera's Pagliacci: more is less

The short opera is normally part of a double bill, but here, presented alone, some padding only adds to other problems.
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Gordon Hawkins (left, in car) and Antonello Palombi (right, waving, in car), in Seattle Opera's <i>Pagliacci</i>. (Rozarii Lynch)

The short opera is normally part of a double bill, but here, presented alone, some padding only adds to other problems.

Seattle Opera's production of Pagliacci, which opened this past weekend, includes a scene new to the familiar potboiler. Has the opera world been shaken up by the sudden discovery of pages from Leoncavallo's score that had gone missing all these years? Not exactly.

The scene in question is an invention of the stage director, Bernard Uzan. At the suggestion of Speight Jenkins, the Opera's general director, Uzan decided to add an "interlude" within Leoncavallo's original intermezzo (the orchestral piece which introduces the second act), using now-forgotten music from other parts of the composer's career.

We see the lead clown, Canio, daydreaming as he is still dressing for the climactic performance and tormented by concrete evidence, just witnessed, of his wife Nedda's betrayal. Their back story together unfolds as a pantomimed flashback, with a younger Canio recalling how he rescued Nedda from her impoverished orphanhood. (His career in commedia dell'arte has apparently also included thorough training in circus acrobatics.) Philip A. Kelsey is credited with arranging the banal stage band music used to accompany this "circus interlude" from Leoncavallo's score to his later opera Zazà as well as piano music by the composer.

Big mistake. The idea of illustrating Canio's own sense of what he's lost to amplify his murderous motivation may sound good on paper, but in performance it has the opposite effect. Leoncavallo's carefully proportioned structure already builds in a lyrical relaxation from the gathering tension in the first act's scene between Nedda and her lover Silvio. Interpolating the trite circus-band music (which was embarrassingly underrehearsed, by the way) adds a major roadblock–a distraction that is only aggravated by the extroverted crowd music preceding the clowns' show. Conductor Dean Williamson's dragging tempos and lackluster phrasing further dispelled the tension crucial to a successful Pagliacci.

Seattle Opera prides itself on adhering to a composer's intentions, and to its credit, the production restores cuts traditionally made to the score. So this interpolation is especially baffling. I'm all for creative rethinking of repertory: Mahler's famous observation that "tradition is laziness" would be well heeded in many an American opera house. But the ultimate goal has to be shedding light on the work in question instead of distorting it.

I couldn't escape the suspicion that what was really at issue here was anxiety over patrons' questions about presenting this short opera, normally paired with another short opera to make a double bill, standing all by its lonesome. Rather than attempting to pad out the evening, at the expense of Leoncavallo's own perfectly calibrated musical trajectory, there are a number of cost-saving alternatives to mounting two verismo shockers (the other is usually Cavalieria Rusticana) back to back that have proved artistically successful. One good example was a pairing of Pagliacci with Carmina Burana conceived by Portland Opera's Christopher Mattaliano. And I've experienced Pagliacci as a satisfying evening on its own (at Washington National Opera).

Rather than toy with Leoncavallo's score and scenario, Seattle Opera would do better to focus attention on improving the flaws in its production. The most interesting characterization by far in the opening night cast–to the point that this comes across as an unintended bit of revisionism--is the venomous Tonio of Gordon Hawkins. He brings a deliciously malevolent, Alberichian menace to the scorned and misshapen clown, singing his pain to potent and riveting effect and injecting much-needed variety. Uzan wisely restores the famous final line–"the comedy is over"–to Tonio, as the composer intended.

Something's off when Tonio overshadows the rest of the cast. Nuccia Focile creates little sympathy for her Nedda, characterizing the role with a disappointingly monochrome quality that becomes easily stressed at the top. Her soliloquy "Stridono lassu" is colorless, while the love duet with Silvio (sung with surprising blandness by Morgan Smith, from whom I've seen far more involving work) sails by with the barest hint of death-defying passion. Even Doug Jones–usually a reliably resourceful character singer–brings little of his delightful quirkiness to his harlequin in the second act.

Pagliacci (as well as next season's Aida) was scheduled to showcase the late-blooming dramatic tenor Antonello Palombi, whose fame skyrocketed when he stepped in for a humiliated Roberto Alagna as Radames at La Scala. Alagna came back to the role last fall at the Met with a vengeance.

Palombi undeniably owns a huge instrument of extraordinary potency, his emotion filling all the spaces of "Vesti la giubba" and his breakdown during the clown play. The problem is that he gives us all of Canio's sound and fury from the start, with little variation from the rage revealed early in the opera. Granted, Pagliacci is no study in the subtleties of character development, but Palombi's Canio adds to the production's overall one-note aspect.

In Uzan's direction, these characters seem stuck in their patterns of anger and victimhood: verismo as sadomasochism. His updating to the Fellini '50s (indicated by costumes and a car), moreover, is merely decorative rather than integrated.


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