Pagliacci / Gianni Schicchi
Nov 12, 16 and 18, 2011
I like short operas. Granted, they don’t have the hefty pent-up emotion that a 3 hour production can muster nor do they generally have the grandiose staging or whirlwind scene changes. But what they might lack in emotional and aesthetic opulence, they make up for in tightly realized libretto, snappy direction and an easily digestible plot. Or at least the good ones do.
Calgary Opera opens its 40th Anniversary season with two very good short operas, the tragedy Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo and Giacomo Puccini’s comedy Gianni Schicchi. Both are given decent treatment by the company, but it’s Puccini’s comedy where things really shine and the audience gets not just a “staging” of a classic, but a uniquely clever and immensely enjoyable interpretation of one.
The evening begins with Pagliacci, the story of spousal betrayal and revenge. Canio, the head of a troupe of clown performers, brings his show to Calabria and invites the villagers to come out that evening to attend the show. With his PR duties finished, Canio and one of his actors, Beppe decide to go into town to have a drink and relax. One of the townspeople jokes that while Canio is gone, his wife Nedda will be wooed by Tonio, an actor who plays lovesick to her on stage. Canio forcefully insists that while this type of flirting goes on as part of his act, he will not tolerate any hint of adultery in real life.
But of course Nedda does have a lover, not Tonio, but a man named Silvio who begs her to run away with him. Tonio sees the two together and, acting in vengeance because he is truly in love with Nedda who has recently rebuffed him, goes to tell Canio and brings him to catch Nedda with her lover. Canio sees the pair, but Silvio runs off before Canio can tell who it is. He threatens to kill Nedda unless she tells him who her lover is, but she refuses. Tonio then tells Canio he must pretend to succeed – if he goes on with the show like nothing is wrong, no doubt Nedda’s lover will come out to watch and then be revealed. Canio grudgingly goes along with this advice but is tortured by the decision vacillating between rage and despair at the betrayal.
The comedic play goes on, but Canio cannot control his anger. He demands onstage that Nedda tell him the truth while the village audience thinks that the violent fight is simply part of the play. Furious by her unwillingness to come clean, Canio stabs her and then her lover Silvio who rushes from the audience to help her. Canio then announces to the shocked villagers that the comedy is ended.
Marc Hervieux’s Canio is musically proficient and he delivers the famous aria “Vesti la giubba” where Canio laments that in spite of his anguish the show must go on with technical poise, but it felt fairly emotionally flat and rushed to me. Hervieux had all the despair bells and whistles under his command (the crying and the flinging of props) but perhaps by virtue of his launching into the aria too quickly and not giving the emotion enough space, he took what is arguably the most moving arias of all time and underwhelmed. Better direction by Alain Gauthier could have improved this much-anticipated scene. The same can be said for the final words spoken by Canio. At the end of all his torment, when he has killed his wife and her lover and has exhausted his rage, Hervieux gives a forceful bleat of “the comedy is over” instead treating the line like a fatigued and beaten man. The choice makes for an abrupt rather than tragic ending.
Nedda played by Sally Dibblee on the other hand not only musically conquers her role but also provides a solid actorly performance that is a pleasure to watch. Her ability to go from Nedda the love-struck with Canio to Nedda the mean-spirited dismissing Tonio’s love to Nedda the defiant against Canio’s threats, shows off Dibblee’s acting prowess and brings wonderful dimension to the role.
It would be a stretch to say the performance was uneven. The voices were solid, and for the most part the acting was decent to very good. Better direction and some breathing room to let the emotion simmer however would have turned this good enough performance into something much better.
Gianni Schicchi by comparison was perfect on every level benefiting from outstanding staging, wonderful vocals, a beautiful interpretation of its signature aria, great use of props and superb acting at a level that we don’t often see in opera.
The story is a simple one. The wealthy Buoso Donati is dying and his greedy relatives gather at his bedside hoping for an inheritance from his will. One of the relatives, Rinuccio is in love with a country girl Lauretta who his family does not approve of, but they agree to let him marry her if there is enough money. Their clan’s dreams are dashed however when they learn that Donati intends to leave everything to the town monastery. Rinuccio suggests that they consult Lauretta’s father, Gianni Schicchi, a shrew self-made man as surely he can help them figure out what to do. With much beseeching from his daughter, Schicchi agrees the help the Donati clan. He devises a plan to re-write the will with him disguised as the now dead Donati and give the relatives “what they deserve” reminding them that all people involved with the fraud would be dealt with harshly under Florence law. When the time comes to write the will, Schicchi pretending to be Buoso Donati, leaves the bulk of the will to himself to the dismay of the relatives. The opera ends with Rinuccio and Lauretta happily together and Schicchi remarking to the audience how happy his fraud made the lovers and how for this he should be found innocent of any crime.
If the star of an opera can be something other than a performer, than the brilliantly timed and bitingly funny staging in Gianni Schicchi steals the spotlight in all the right ways. Here Alain Gauthier clumps the relatives together in a pack as they move about the stage in full fake morning, deceitful back stabbing and naïve trust. They pull out long handkerchiefs and cry in unison, shrug off their black mourning garb in synchronicity and swirl about Schicchi in a whirlwind guided by masterfully funny choreography and blocking that is rewarded with many laughs from the audience.
Just as rewarding are the vocal performances from this cast. John Fanning as Schicchi projects a casual confidence through his singing that is charismatic and full. Sally Dibblee once again performs brilliantly as Lauretta and delivers an utterly beautiful and surprisingly funny execution of the opera’s famous aria “O mio babbino caro” where Lauretta pleas with her father to help with the will so she can marry Rinuccio. Here the juxtaposition of Dibblee’s breathtaking voice, the emotion of the libretto and the comedic staging of the delivery work in excellent balance and create one of those perfect opera moments.
In fact there is not a weak link in this entire opera. The voices and characterization work in splendid harmony making the whole a beautiful culmination of its parts, the staging and prop use is extremely smart and funny without veering into slapstick and then of course there is the wonderful music and story line that is still just as humorous and relevant today. All this in combination is when an opera performance becomes not just a good short one, but a very good one period.
For the guys – A tragedy about a man betrayed and a comedy about greedy relatives. Themes you will enjoy regardless if you are an opera lover or not. SEE IT
For the girls – You’ll wonder where the heart wrench went in the tragedy but will laugh so hard in the comedy you won’t mind the lapse. SEE IT
For the occasional audience – Short operas are a good way to introduce yourself to an art form that may have seemed inaccessible to you. Open your mind, read the surtitles to follow along and enjoy two famous operas and be prepared to laugh more than you expected. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – If you can time it right, skip Pagliacci in spite of Dibblee’s great performance and instead show up for a Gianni Schicchi that will elevate your idea of what an opera can deliver. SEE SOME OF IT