Reflection: Opera Theatre provides an innovative and moving Italian double bill | St. Louis Public Radio

Reflection: Opera Theatre provides an innovative and moving Italian double bill

Jun 2, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A green eye glares from a man’s face, which is framed by a graffiti-style heart sketched in lipstick.

That’s the image on the cover of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ gorgeous 160-page annual program book. It is a look of sheer terror.

A green-eyed monster emerging from an otherwise normal looking fellow is at the core of two short Italian operas – Giacomo Puccini’s “Il tabarro” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” Both opened on a double bill Saturday night at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Rd., in Webster Groves.  

Opera Theatre has once again provided its audiences a twist on tradition. “Pagliacci” usually shares a double-bill with “Cavallera rusticana,” a one-act piece by Pietro Masagni. This double bill is popularly abbreviated as “Cav” and “Pag.” “Il Tabarro,” “Gianni Schicchi” and “Suor Angelica” form Giacomo Puccini’s brilliant “Il trittico” – “The Triptych.” 

Tim Mix as Michele and Emily Pulley as Giorgett in "Il tabarro."
Credit Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis | 2013

Stage director Ron Daniels, who brilliantly took Opera Theatre audiences on the dark tour of “Sweeney Todd” last season, is our deft, well-paced guide again. He’s like the classical Charon, slowly rowing us through the Stygian darkness of two jealous husbands’ hearts.

There are neither visible body parts nor blood this time around. Daniels and most of the production team from "Sweeney Todd" join conductor Ward Stare to present the two short operas. Several of the singers and the chorus double as well.

The two new productions are innovative and moving, but no one can accuse the company of up-dating, back-dating or changing the characters in these two realistic operas from the turn of the last century.

Enunciation of Amanda Holden's English translation from the Italian is superb from chorus to soloists. Praise goes all around especially to the English diction specialist Ben Malensek. Supertitles do spin clearly.

Stories of retribution

In Puccini’s “Il tabarro” (“The Cloak”), barge owner Michele, sung by Tim Mix, discovers his lonely, discontented wife’s recently kindled love for Luigi, one of his stevedores.

Emily Pulley, as his likeable wife Giorgetta, climbs to the vocal heights when she longs to settle down in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris away from his cramped barge cabin. The couple lives from port to port along France's Seine River. Robert Brubaker richly creates the stevedore Luigi, who loves Giorgetta. He is pained to see her husband so uncaring. Pulley and Brubaker’s  love duet was incandescent but too brief.

In Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” (“The Players”) Canio, the head clown of an acting troupe, also sung by Brubaker, is led by a rebuffed clown to spy on his glamorous, edgy actress wife. They find her in flagrante delicto with a stranger.

Opera Theatre favorite Kelly Kaduce, an always-convincing vixen and tragedian, sings  Nedda, his wife. Troy Cook persuasively sings her lover.

In both operas, after months of neglecting the dreams of wives, each all-business guy reacts to discovery of his wife’s dalliance. Each husband violently demands immediate retribution.  

The operas have sumptuous orchestral music in two overtures, an interlude and music supporting the singing. Under Stare’s baton, the symphony musicians gave a performance the world’s greatest opera houses would envy. Both Italian composers knew how to send their audiences home with melodies swirling in their heads.    

The decision of Opera Theatre’s management to bring together these two dark one acts was brilliant, if risky. Using the riveting theme twice might send audiences home not just humming but also hoping to cool rage early, to mentor others, to stop bullying and work for give-and-take in all human relationships. Some order.

Triangles of Different Colors

Nothing seems boringly repetitive. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the very different colors and moods of set designer Riccardo Hernandez and lighting designer’s Christopher Akerlind luminous vision.

Hernandez hangs a curtain printed with the clear, photographic image of a large barge in shades of gray and black. The boat’s only three-dimensional aspect is the deck, which pushes this intimate opera even closer to the audience than is customary. The wife’s two dresses and several potted plant abloom with red flowers offer the only visual color.

The flowering containers evoke Giorgetta’s longing for a settled life with family and friends in the Parisian suburb of Belleville where she and Luigi grew up. Even when her words don’t remind us of that longing, Pulley occasionally underlines her hope by watering the flower or tending them.

After the intermission when “Pagliacci” begins, Mix, now singing the role of the fool and hunchback Tonio, begs the audience to think of the troupe as not “merely actors but to see us all as human beings since we are flesh and blood and lay bare our feelings.”

He then sweeps open the curtain to reveal a new set, with a brilliant red photographic image of a clown face and oversize sign lights proclaiming “Circo.” In both operas, Daniels sends some singers from the stage up into the audience. They travel up and down the aisles; heads must swivel if some of the action is not to be missed. Handsome men seated on aisles should be on the alert: Kaduce may briefly hover over you.

In both operas, lighting points to the story contrasts. Akerlind provides “Il tabarro” with twilight on the riverside so brooding and somber it matched Puccini’s watery sounds from the St. Louis Symphony strings. You almost can feel the damp and expect your shoes to squeak by intermission.  

From the first opera’s grayness, “Pagliacci’s” lights nearly max out with a harsh theatrical brightness for the acting troupe and its huge sign.

Acting convinces

Across both casts the acting is convincing. The two composers, with Daniels’ help, avoid oversimplifying husbands and wives into black-and-white stick figures. Barge owner Michele is no monster, but a guy who hides his emotions behind a virtual cloak. Though his words are harsh, the music, as sung beautifully by Mix, warms our hearts too much to dislike him completely.

Under Daniels' direction, Giorgetta is the sweeter of the two wives. She longs for her husband to be more supportive and responsive and help her get over a recent tragedy. Emily Pulley’s plays Giorgetta as a caring sympathetic woman who worries about the hunched-over aging stevedores hauling cement sacks for her husband. She advocates for shorter hours and gives the workers wine at day’s end.   

Puccini provided a few pauses to allow breathing in the midst of the opera’s intense storytelling.

Frugola, a stevedore’s wife, spends her time as a rag picker. Today she’d be called a dumpster diver, recycling used treasures and sharing them. In this role, Margaret Gawrysiak’s comic timing offers a relief to the growing intensity on the intimate stage. With much humor, she sings about finding a beef heart to feed her spoiled cat that is “gorgeous” and “free of jealousy” -- unlike her husband, Talpa.

The gaiety of an organ grinder, a song seller and some pretty passers-by contrasts with the hard life on the barge. The song seller serves almost like a Greek Chorus, warning that “If you live for love, then only death can set you free. It’s the story of Mimi.” In words and music his singing refers to Puccini’s earlier hit “La boheme.” Some young women buy his song sheets about Mimi and merrily sing melody from "La Boheme" about her tragic death.   

In “Pagliacci’ there is not much to like about the brusque and jealous husband, Canio. He is always jealous, even warning the hunchback clown Tonio, who clearly is in love with Nedda.

Kaduce, as Nedda, violently rebuffs the dangerous admirer and sparks instant revenge. Singer Mix conveyed his evil reaction so brilliantly that the audience happily hissed at him at the curtain call.

After he has caught his wife with her lover, just minutes before the troupe’s scheduled show time, he puts on the white make-up of a commedia dell’arte clown. He sings the iconic aria “Play my part while I am blinded by fury? …Dress in the costume and disguise your face with make-up.”

Brubaker conveys the actor’s challenge to leave behind his own emotions so well that you feel sorry for Canio.

At the same time, you almost want him to stop -- an audience can’t take so much sorrow.  That, of course, is what has made this aria famous since its premiere in 1892 and more widely since its 1904 recording -- the first of any music style to sell a million copies.

In the final lines, which say “The paying public wants you to make them laugh,” Brubaker fully engages our hearts, turning from his backstage mirror to show the audience his painted face.

Elegant clowning

Before this aria, “Pagliacci” offers elegant moments of clowning. During its overture 10 clowns, in white face and immaculate clown suits with black-rimmed white ruffs and black buttons silently pose in aisles. Later, a sweet moment comes as the acting troupe prepares for the Sunday afternoon performance near the town square. A children’s chorus crosses the square singing in a Corpus Christi Feast-style street procession hoisting a banner of the Virgin Mary. The young St. Louis chorus members are Alyssa Linneman, Michelle Laurissa Springer, Sandeep Amarnath, Sam Pottinger, Alexander Pompian, Chloe Haynes, Fiona Scott and Dawson Rene.   

The adult chorus offers sumptuous singing from off-stage in “Il tabarro.” In “Pagliacci” they are visible playing the village’s audience. When the play within the opera begins, they settle on bleachers and face the Browning Theatre audience. There are some nice bits of acting as they become impatient when the play does not begin on time. At times they wildly applaud the troupe’s scripted action. Only when Beppe, sung handsomely by Matthew DiBattista and other troupe actors rush to the troupe's small stage with real fear on their faces, does the on-stage audience realize what is happening. The troupe’s actors’ real jealousy and fears have swamped their script.  

The real audience can easily realize when reality intrudes. Kaduce, especially, mastered stylized, near wind-up doll, gestures for her play-within-the opera character Colombina. When Nedda’s own fear takes over, Kaduce reverts to a more realistic and convincing acting style.

Both composers gave their singers some freedom in singing by marking scores with the word rubato. With Stare’s help some singers added emotion by switching the tempo from the marked orchestra timing. Sometimes it work sumptuously, but sometimes a few soloists seemed to strain out of their comfort range and go off-pitch. The damp of the past week’s rains, so challenging to singers’ voices, should not affect pitch and no doubt adjustments can be made.  

Bravo to whomever ditched translator Amanda Holden final English line of the opera. She dampened “Pagliacci’s” Italian line “La commedia è finita” (“The comedy is over”) for a folksy “That’s the end of the story.”

Brubaker sang the Italian “commedia” line in its original breath-taking irony.

You can’t help but leave the theater thinking: “Where is forgiveness?”

Actually, it’s all around this Opera Theatre season.  Forgiveness is at the core story telling of Opera Theatre’s three other productions rotating through months’ end in the company’s 38th  festival season:  “Pirates,” “Champion” and “The Kiss.”