Pagliacci: Hold up to Intense Scrutiny

"Vesti La Giuba" is a tenor's aria so famous even those who pay no heed to opera recognize it when they hear it, although they may not know its name or its parent opera. That very notoriety holds up both the aria and its opera, Ruggero Cavallo's "Pagliacci," to intense scrutiny. Seattle Opera's inventive production of the renowned opera more than passes muster.

"Pagliacci" is traditionally performed in tandem with another one-act opera, Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana." The two are similar in many ways, and Seattle Opera has jumped on the recent bandwagon of companies ditching Mascagni's work and performing "Pagliacci" solo.

Modern productions of "Pagliacci" have placed an intermission between the opera's two scenes. Seattle Opera has gone a step further, restoring music that had been cut and inserting a 12-minute dream sequence that opens Act Two. In Canio's dream, the evolution of the relationship between Canio and Nedda, the young girl he brings into the circus and later marries, is revealed through fantastical acrobatics and dance. With the background from the dream, the vehemence of Canio's jealousy makes more sense, and his grief over Nedda falling for another man is all the more tortured. The music for the dream sequence is lifted from Leoncavallo's little-known opera "Zazà" and his piano work titled "Serenade."

Another apt expansion of this story of a group of itinerant performers in southern Italy is the addition of two mimes, Comedy and Tragedy, who focus and amplify the action onstage. The intriguing juxtaposition of the production's fantasy elements with its harsh realism enhances but does not detract from its "verismo" style.

Stage director Bernard Uzan has directed several productions of "Pagliacci." Rather than squeezing the life out of Seattle Opera's production, Uzan's history gives him a firm hand in guiding it through the new, potentially entangling embellishments as it steadily builds to its emotionally stunning finale. Even moving the story from the late 1800s to the 1950s poses no problem, and stuffing the clowns into a pint-sized Fiat is downright inspired.

Under the baton of conductor Dean Williamson, orchestra and singers on opening night worked hand in hand to breathe vigor combined with a rhythm that was almost conversational into the music. The Seattle Opera Chorus, as rehearsed by chorusmaster Beth Kirchhoff, did a remarkable job.

In the opening-night cast, Antonio Palombi eschewed melodrama while pouring his feelings, from rage to anguish, onto the stage with an unnerving verisimilitude. He has an enormous voice but delivered an emotionally nuanced performance of "Vesti La Giuba" that was heart-rending.

A potent Tonio, Gordon Hawkins was terrifying in his fury over Nedda's rejection and surprisingly moving for a villain. As the suitably hot-blooded Nedda, Nuccia Focile displayed a voice whose lovely sonority resounded all the way to the back of the house.

For the role of Nedda's lover, Silvio, Morgan Smith drew on the bewitching aspects of voice and character he employed as a charismatic "Don Juan" in Seattle Opera's production of that opera a couple of seasons ago . Doug Jones did his usual stellar work as Beppe.

Lighting designer Donald Thomas' fade of lights into sunset was so infinitesimally slow it appeared lifelike. Thomas' lighting unobtrusively highlighted the action and Claude Girard's village square set, originally designed for L'Opéra de Montréal.

In the final adjustment by Seattle Opera to Leoncavallo's work, Tonio and not Canio now sings the last line, "The comedy is finished." Since Tonio introduces the opera in his prologue, it is fitting dramatically that he also be the bearer of the final words. The change is also more heartbreaking and what the composer originally intended.

Seattle Opera's "Pagliacci" plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., through Saturday, Jan. 26. Prices: $25-169. Tickets/information: 389-7676,

Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the Seattle area and is the former editor of the News.

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