San Diego Opera’s opening night enthusiasm seemed more electric than usual Saturday (Jan. 25) at Civic Theatre. Smartly dressed patrons streamed in from a large pre-opera party at Golden Hall through the plaza in front of the theater filled with other patrons engaged in animated conversations while noshing at the outdoor concession stands. Anticipation for the company’s new season was high, and next year’s 50th anniversary season was boldly proclaimed in the program book, an announcement traditionally kept under wraps until much later in the season.
If only the cast of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s signature opera Pagliacci had been able to sustain that sense of exhilaration, it would have made a memorable night at Civic Theatre. Stephen Powell’s robust opening Prologue promised an emotion-packed adventure, and his hearty baritone suggested a feast for the ears as well.
Once this well-known tale of adultery and revenge in rural 19th-century Italy began to unfold, however, the dramatic tension dissipated, and this icon of chilling versimo domestic violence took on the two-dimensional quality of the stock Columbine-Harlequin play the actors stage for the untutored Calabrian rustics at the opera’s conclusion.
If only the leads had developed some palpable stage chemistry among themselves. Each was at his best vocally and dramatically alone on stage: Powell (as Tonio) in the Prologue; Romanian soprano Adina Nitescu singing Nedda’s lilting ballade exalting the freedom of the birds—which she did with apparent ease prone in the center of the stage, and tenor Frank Poretta’s poignant account of Canio’s wrenching arioso “Vesti la giubba.”
The only time I was convinced these singers were completely engaged with each other is when Nitescu was rolling on
the ground with her shirtless inamorato, baritone David Adam Moore as the sly Silvio. Otherwise the singers tended to sing at each other with distancing neutrality, and too frequently with their least attractive vocal production.
Some of this blame should rest at the feet of Australian stage director Andrew Sinclair, who introduced the unscripted climax of having Canio commit suicide after lethally stabbing both his wife Nedda and Silvio. Considering Canio’s macho posturing early in the opera, such an act seems unlikely, and it instantly summoned mental pictures of that other verismo staple Madama Butterfly, which only served to make this opera-goer wish we had seen Puccini’s opera instead of the Leoncavallo.
The evening was not without its pleasures, first of which was the always dependable opera chorus, which filled the stage with abundant energy, purposeful movement, and gorgeous singing. Their early chorus “Din, Dan, Don” (sometimes called the Bell Chorus) sparkled with brightly-hued harmonies and clean diction. Moore’s love duet with Nedda revealed his polished, ingratiating baritone, and, in the role of Harlequin in the play within the opera, lyric tenor Joel Sorensen crafted an unusually sweet, affecting serenade to Nedda (as Columbine in the little play).
John Coyne’s simple, uncluttered stage design suggested an aptly unimpressive town square, while the large tree towards the back of the stage allowed various characters to either spy on questionable behavior or escape and enter the scene unobtrusively. Ed Kotanen’s eye-popping bold colors and harlequin-diamond designs for the leads suggested both sophistication and a touch of the garish—just what a troupe of itinerant players should sport. The townsfolk wore appropriate period garb, although they looked as if everyone had trotted out their Sunday best. Michael Whitfield’s static lighting scheme kept on the bright side, giving the splashy costumes their full due.
Recalling his knowledgable conducting from last season’s The Daughter of the Regiment, it was no surprise that French-Canadian maestro Yves Abel brought out the best possible colors from the orchestra and crafted a winning, supple intermezzo.[php snippet=1]
Without the traditional Cavalleria Rusticana partnering Pagliacci on the bill, the evening’s program felt anticlimactic. But I might not have felt that way had this Pagliacci been more compelling.