Spokane Opera celebrates its 25th season by bringing in the clowns.
No, not Stephen Sondheim’s clowns, but Ruggero Leoncavallo’s troupe of “Pagliacci,” for performances Friday and Saturday at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.
“Pagliacci” ranks as one of the most popular operas. Opera aficionados know it backward and forward, but it is the ideal introduction for people unfamiliar with opera.
It’s short. It has familiar melodies richly orchestrated. And it has two of opera’s prime ingredients: violence and sex.
The story is simple and uses familiar themes: An older husband is violently jealous, fearing his young, beautiful wife is having an affair. A lustful, Iago-like “friend” encourages the husband’s murderous jealousy.
In the play-within-a-play scene, comedy turns tragic and the husband kills both his wife and her lover.
This short opera was its composer’s only lasting success. But it was the source of the the first million-selling record: Enrico Caruso’s 1902 recording of “Vesti la giubba.”
It was the first opera to be recorded complete in 1907, and the first to be filmed with sound in 1931.
Spokane Opera’s cast features Seattle tenor Gregory Carroll as Canio, the leader of a troupe of commedia del’arte players; Spokane-born soprano Heather Parker as Nedda, his wife; and baritone John Cooper as Tonio, a member of the troupe futilely in love with Nedda.
Others in the cast include baritone Joshua Jeremiah as Silvio, Nedda’s actual lover, and tenor Russell Seaton as Beppe, a level-headed member of the troupe. Dean Williamson will conduct.
Williamson is a “Pagliacci” veteran. As Seattle Opera’s principal coach-accompanist for 12 years, five of those as music director of the Young Artists program, Williamson played the “Pagliacci” score dozens, maybe hundreds, of times.
Then he turned to conducting. He conducted Seattle Opera’s innovative “Pagliacci” production in 2008 and will conduct the opera again this summer at the Chautauqua Opera Festival in New York.
“For a long time I didn’t want to conduct, even though friends and colleagues kept saying, ‘Dean, you ought to conduct. You know about opera,’ ” Williamson says. “It was only in my late thirties when I decided that I the time was right for me to conduct.
“It was just about that time when I was in a bookstore in Seattle and my cell phone rang. It was (executive director) Bill Graham asking if I would be interested in conducting Spokane Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly.’
“So I have a warm spot in my heart for this company. Bill and (artistic director) Marjory Halvorson cast their productions very well, and working with them building a very responsive group of orchestra musicians has been a great part of my life.”
Williamson, who has conducted Spokane Opera performances for 10 years, is in his second season as artistic director of Opera Cleveland. Not confined to opera, he has led orchestral concerts with the Northwest Chamber Orchestra and the Bellevue Philharmonic.
“Most opera orchestras in all but the biggest opera companies are drawn from players in the local symphony or from symphony freelancers,” Williamson says. “So as a conductor, you have to get them over the idea that they are hidden down in the pit and nobody pays any attention to them.
“In addition to learning to work flexibly with singers, they have to realize they give the underscore to the drama – without them, opera is not opera.”
Spokane Opera’s “Pagliacci” will use renowned opera conductor Anton Coppola’s reduction incorporating 20 players.
“Leoncavallo’s original orchestration used a huge orchestra with triple woodwinds and two harps,” Williamson says. “We’re using a few more players than we usually do here in Spokane, but with any more than 20 there wouldn’t be room in the pit at The Fox.
“Maestro Coppola really manages to keep Leoncavallo’s sound remarkably intact,” he adds.
Though the original opera takes place in the late 1860s, the Spokane Opera production is set in what director Graham calls 1930s middle America.
“But we will be singing it in the original Italian using English supertitles,” he says.
“We asked (Spokane Civic Theatre’s) Troy Nickerson to direct the commedia scene in Act II using a couple of dancers, a gymnast and a juggler,” Graham adds.
“We are using costumes from Utah Opera and have a backdrop painted by Alan Schwanke that gives the scene a storybook effect with a blood-red border.”