This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Two short operas about love triangles will show St. Louis audiences Saturday night that gorgeous music can often more effectively aim a story straight to the heart than words alone.
A double bill of Giacomo Puccini’s 1918 "Il Tabarro" and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 "Pagliacci" runs in rotation through June 29 as part of Opera Theatre of St. Louis' 38th spring festival.
In Italian "Il Tabarro" means the cloak. The husband’s dark, long cloak is a key to the story’s end. "Pagliacci" is Italian for players in an acting troupe. Both of the operas are known for soaring, splendorous music.
Music historians say that "Il Tabarro" includes some of the mature, melody-maker Puccini’s finest music. And that’s saying something, for the composer whose operas include "Madame Butterfly," "Tosca and "La Boheme."
"Pagliacci," with its iconic weeping clown, has been a popular opera for more than 120 years, never dropping out of the repertory. A phonograph of its hit aria "Vesti la giubba" (Italian for "Put on the costume") was the first recording, in any musical style, to sell 1 million copies. It was recorded by tenor Enrico Caruso and released in 1904.
Both operas are in the verismo, or realistic, style, which often has a gritty edge. Unlike many earlier operas, there are no kings, goddesses, elves or magic tricks. Verismo operas tell stories of working people’s struggles, sufferings and glimpses of joy and escape. In this rarely paired double bill lust, love, jealousy and murder rupture dreary routine.
"Pagliacci" is the best known (and first) of the eight operas by Leoncavallo, who was 34 when it opened in 1892 in Milan. Puccini was 60 when "Il Tabarro" had its world premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1918.
"Il Tabarro" was part "Il Trittico," a triptych of three short operas with unrelated plots. At the New York premiere, "Il Tabarro" was followed by "Suor Angelica" and then "Gianni Schicchi." The three are rarely done together today because they run longer than three hours. That set of one-act operas was the last of Puccini’s 11 operas premiered in his lifetime. He died with "Turandot" unfinished.
Ward Stare is the conductor charged with pulling out the gorgeous music from the soloists, chorus and St. Louis Symphony musicians.
" 'Tabarro's' music is very intimate, very subtle, very dark," Stare said, in an interview after two weeks of OTSL rehearsals. In that opera the chorus is unseen and sings off stage adding to the intimacy.
"Even in the most climatic moments, Puccini’s music is very intimate," he said, calling it introverted.
In contrast, he said "Pagliacci" has a lot of "fun, exuberance and color, with a full chorus on stage. It’s wildly extroverted with a dramatic musical palette."
Stare’s basic approach with the singers in rehearsals has been to help them "always be lyrical and voice the emotions in the score," while allowing them a freedom of timing called rubato, he said.
The technique, which is used in both operas, allows the vocalists freedom to sing the melody expressively, sometimes faster, sometimes slower than is printed in the score. As their voices shift above the orchestra in the rubato technique, they can make the music especially expressive and natural, Stare said.
He’s pleased to be back in St. Louis to conduct opera for the first time here with musicians who are good friends. In the fall of 2008 when he was 25, he became the SLSO’s resident conductor — formerly called the assistant conductor — and served as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. A year ago he left the post but conducted at Powell last month, as well as around the world.
This summer he’ll make his conducting debut in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. Another return was to the Chicago Lyric Opera earlier this year. There, at age 18, he began his professional music career as principal trombonist. In December he will go back to the Lyric to conduct Strauss’ "Die Fledermaus." Next June, he will be at OTSL conducting Poulenc’s "Dialogues of the Carmelites." He is looking forward to working again with two sopranos he knows well, Christine Brewer and Kelly Kaduce. The latter sings Nedda in "Pagliacci."
"I love conducting opera, and am happy to do more of it," he said.
Triangles with heat and pain
"Il Tabarro" and "Pagliacci" are both about an inattentive but hard-working middle-age husband and a younger wife who feels under-appreciated and finds romance with a man near her age. The wife in each opera dreams of a better life, a more settled home life.
"These characters have an incredibly hard life," said Ron Daniels, stage director of the double bill. "Men are expected to be cruel in these plots; these operas were before feminism. We are storytellers, dream merchants," he said. The Brazilian Daniels returns to OTSL having directed 2012 critically acclaimed production of "Sweeney Todd."
In "Il Tabarro," the wife, Giorgetta, is sung by Emily Pulley, making her OTSL debut. She finds living on a working barge in the Seine River lonely and stressful. Her stretch of river is not the picturesque river of dreams of Proust or of Ernest Hemingway’s musings. Her husband’s barge is docked on a dingy quai where Industrial Revolution factories pollute. Gruff stevedores create a harsh man’s world. When the story opens, the lonely Giorgetta has recently lost the couple’s first child.
"It’s no way to live in a (barge) cabin and a kitchen, you should have seen the house I once had," soprano Pulley will sing. Giorgetta longs for the then-pretty Paris suburb of Belleville. She grew up there and she knew all the neighbors. One was Luigi, who has invited her to elope with him. With the spark of a match, plans crash and tragedy is discovered under a dark cloak.
In "Pagliacci," the wife and actress, Nedda, is weary of traveling rural Italy’s back roads in a Commedia dell’arte troupe. She sings about her dream of flying away like the birds she watches. Nedda is married to Canio, the troupe’s chief player or pagliaccio. She falls in love with Silvio, a villager, when the troupe visits his region.
At the OTSL Spotlight on Opera panel discussion about the double bill, company General Director Tim O’Leary talked about the two stories full of blues and tragedy.
Feigning puzzlement, he asked Daniels and Stare, "Why are we doing these operas?" O’Leary answered his own question, saying, "It’s the music," and stating that the two offer some of the most beautiful music in opera.
Stage director Ron Daniels said in an interview that, when he planned the two operas at his New York desk months ago, the core plots seemed alike. He has never seen either opera on stage and hopes that gives him a fresh approach.
In St. Louis, Daniels found that the many layers of detail provided dramatic differences.
"The contrasts emerged as we were working," Daniels said. "I like that you do arrive at first rehearsal with some basic ideas, background, then, working music and librettos, suddenly other things are revealed. When you start working on a piece, you try to discover it from the inside out and go with what you discover. It often happens that when we dive into rehearsals, then we get on that wave length and that wave length only. I love that."
You could use a microscope to examine the characters in "Il Tabarro," he said. "It is a subtler opera, a condensed story. Its action is focused on one dark night on the stern of the barge," Daniels said. "The story is a jewel."
"You need a telescope to see 'Pagliacci,' an opera that’s funny, exuberant, fun, with vivid colors, in a circus-like setting, lots going on, huge," Daniels said.
The "Pagliacci" story about the acting group is a play-within-a-play. Tonio, a clown, reminds all that actors are real people with real emotions. The troupe’s actors work from a scripted story — mostly. The villagers and the audience must discern what is the fictional play and what is the reality of the actors’ lives.
"There is a spilling over in the narrative when actors’ personal lives intrude on their professional lives," Daniels said. "The production tries to reflect the idea that artifice and reality do sometimes interchange."
After the double bill opens here, the Brazilian-born Daniels will fly to Spain to direct tenor Placido Domingo in the Pablo Neruda role in Daniel Catán’s 2010 “Il Postino” at Madrid’s Teatro Real.
Sopranos stand alone
Most of the double bill cast sings in both operas. Not the sopranos: Pulley and Kelly Kaduce sing the demanding roles of the wife in "Il Tabarro" and "Pagliacci," respectively.
Kaduce said that she likes to sing complex women and she discovers who they are, not so much with historical or literary research, but by studying the score.
"Nedda, Butterfly, Suor Angelica all share their emotions," she said. Before singing Nedda, she sang the two other strong women in the title roles of those Puccini operas. "The woman’s characters are all there in the words and the music," Kaduce said.
St. Louis audiences may vividly remember Kaduce from several productions here, going back to her "discovery" by OTSL’s late artistic director Colin Graham at the beginning of the century, and especially her last appearance here in the 2011 title role of "Salome."
Several singers play very different characters in each opera. Baritone Robert Brubaker sings the role of the young boyfriend, Luigi, in "Il Tabarro," then flips to become the jealous husband, Canio, in "Pagliacci."
"The big challenge is for Tim Mix, who sings Michele (the jealous husband) in the first opera and Tonio (the hunchback clown whose love of Nedda is unrequited) in 'Pagliacci'," Stare said.
Both operas will be sung in English translations by Amanda Holden. Pronunciation alert: The letter g in “Pagliacci” is silent. The combo of these two new opera productions still won’t run as long as some single operas. In rehearsals the pair are totaling about two and a half hours.
Cast and production
Conductor | Ward Stare
Stage director | Ron Daniels
Set designer | Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer | Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer | Christopher Akerlind
Choreographer | Seán Curran
Luigi – Canio | Robert Brubaker
Nedda | Kelly Kaduce
Giorgetta | Emily Pulley
Michele – Tonio |Tim Mix
Silvio | Troy Cook
Tinka – Beppe | Matthew DiBattista
Frugola | Margaret Gawrysiak
Talpa | Thomas Hammons