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Review: ‘Pagliacci’ a splendid opera anniversary gift

Mon., March 8, 2010

Spokane Opera celebrated its silver anniversary with a vibrant, steamy production of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” Friday at The Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.

There were those in Friday’s audience, this writer included, who remember the company’s debut at Lindaman’s restaurant 25 years ago performing short comic, one-act operas with two or three singers and piano accompaniment. The company has persevered, moving on to vital productions of big works from the 18th, 19th and (occasionally) 20th centuries.

“Pagliacci” (which might be translated “Clowns” or “Players”) presents a compact tragedy of a troupe of Italian commedia dell’arte players rife with lust and jealousy leading, finally, to a double murder. It belongs to the verismo, or hyper-realistic Italian school of composers of the late 1800s. This production, transferred to the American Midwest of the 1930s, was sung in the original Italian with English supertitles. It was quite impressive, visually and vocally.

The five leading roles were very exceptionally well cast. The leader of the troupe, Canio, was sung by Gregory Carroll, a very large young man whose tenor voice has a dark coloration showing his recent conversion from singing as a baritone. His concluding Act I “Vesti la giubba” was a highlight. The anguish of Canio’s discovery of his wife Nedda’s unfaithfulness was palpable. Canio’s breaking out of his commedia character in Act II’s play-within-a-play, confronting Nedda, then killing both her and her lover Silvio, was forceful and scary. Nedda was beautifully sung by Spokane-born soprano Heather Parker.

She began her career with Spokane Opera before winning major competitions and going on to a national career in opera. Parker has the seductive looks and sensuous voice just right for Nedda. Her Act I aria “Stridono lassù,” in which she envies the freedom of the birds contrasting with her own hemmed-in life, was touching. Her love duet with Joshua Jeremiah as Silvio conveyed the complexity of Nedda’s character. Her conflicted feelings of wifely duty and yearning for freedom and love were better presented than in productions I have seen of this opera even by some major opera companies.

Jeremiah made a handsome country swain, with an ardent baritone that made it easy to see why Nedda was willing, albeit reluctantly, to run away with him.

Silvio’s foil – the lustful Tonio, another member of the troupe of players – was powerfully portrayed by baritone John B. Cooper. Tonio’s rejected desire for Nedda lies at the heart of “Pagliacci.” This production downplayed Tonio’s physical deformity. He is referred to in Leoncavallo’s libretto as a hunchback, but Friday, Tonio appeared only barely lame. Cooper’s singing of the Prologue “Si può” and his protestation of love to Nedda in Act I were excellently sung. His anger at Nedda’s rejection and derisive laughter, and his oily role in bringing about the murder of Nedda and Silvio, presented Tonio as psychologically tormented and mentally, rather than physically, deformed.

Spokane tenor Russell Seaton’s Peppe was well-sung and his acting in Peppe’s commedia role of Arlecchino in Act II was a delight.

The chorus of townspeople in the Act I “Bell Chorus” and their shocked response to the events of Act II was effective vocally and visually.

An addition to this weekend’s production not specified in the libretto was the lithe dancing of Siri Hafso, Shawn Hudson, SaraEllen Hutchison and Justin Roney and the expert juggling of Troy Anast. Their ensemble helped build the tension in Act II by stretching the action between the second act’s beginning merriment and its tragic end.

Leoncavallo’s original orchestration requires an almost Wagnerian-size orchestra, but the pit at The Fox is quite small. Conductor Dean Williamson, artistic director of Opera Cleveland, elected to reduce the number of players to a 20-piece orchestra performing effective score reduction made by Anton Coppola. Williamson knows this opera well and knows his Spokane players well, too. He was able to coax flexibility and richness from his ensemble and give well-controlled balance and pacing to the singing and action on stage.

Spokane is lucky to have its own opera company that performs main-stage productions such as “Pagliacci” as well as dinner theater opera and free outdoor performances alongside their annual Diamonds and Divas gala. Spokane Opera’s founders Marjory Halvorson and Bill Graham are dedicated regional opera leaders and certainly local heroes.

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