Monday, December 3, 2018

Showcasing its high-tension drama, Pagliacci stands alone marvellously at Opera San José

Pagliacci, Leoncavallo’s compact two-act opera with prologue is so often paired with and spoken of in the same breath as Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana - an almost inseparable 'Cav and Pag' to friends of opera - that it’s not only surprising to see it dislodged from its usual companion but given the chance to stand alone. Opera San José has done just that. Jammed with lust, betrayal, jealousy and violence, there’s a thrilling and high-tension drama at play to make an all up 90-minute evening that includes a 25-minute interval feel like it gives more than enough punch. Given so much passion and commitment to quality as it has, Opera San José showcased the work marvellously.

Opera San José Chorus, Pagliacci
Chuck Hudson’s direction is loaded with vibrancy and ardour. The story’s rustic Calabrian village setting is honoured, although the original 1860s timeframe appears updated decades later in Cathleen Edwards’ vibrant, beautifully detailed costumes. Hudson fills it with life and colour, busy without overpowering the drama and focused directly on the heart when desired. Two-storey stuccoed walls, arched openings and a railed staircase enclose a central piazza as part of Andrea Bechert’s spatially explorative set design. A timber platform in the centre provides the scene for the itinerant troupe’s entertainment. 

The plot’s parallel with the painful realities satirised in a comic sketch by stock characters of commedia dell'arte provides ideal verismo material which resonates in Leoncavallo’s lush and thrashing, hair-raising music. In the pit, conductor Christian Reif worked the tempi favourably and allowed the music to breath with the singers. The OSJ Orchestra played soundly, the strings particularly striking with their gossamer clarity and smooth crescendos. The orchestra’s expertise was cemented in the oft-performed Intermezzo (starting Act 2), driving it with depth and feeling.

A superb show of voices and acting flexibility far exceeded expectation. As the lustful and vengeful Tonio, Anthony Clark Evans struck every note with compelling emotion with his phenomenal baritone that is altogether ample, heavyweight and supple. Clark Evans led with a riveting prologue, reminding the audience that behind the actors the show is about real people.

Anthony Clark Evans, Maria Natale and Cooper Nolan in Pagliacci
Blazing soprano Maria Natale was perfectly cast to portray a determined Nedda, singing her with full- throttled lushness and freedom. Natale’s brilliantly nuanced depiction in successive encounters with her suspicious husband Canio to the perverted Tonio and then to Silvio her lover showed how capable she is as an artist. And in Nedda’s part as Colombina, Natale lit up the stage-within-a-stage with comic charm before the doom draws achingly over her demeanour. 

Broad, impressive emotionally layered tenor Cooper Nolan thoroughly convinced in firing Canio’s jealousy and rage, yet contrastingly gave strong sympathetic soul to the opera’s most famous aria, “Vesti la giubba”. 

Emmett O’Hanlon‘s good looks and generously burnished baritone complimented Natale’s striking Nedda and as Beppe, tenor Mason Gates might not have the same firmness in the voice as his colleagues but sported a handsome bronzed tone and expressive clout. Gates sure could entertain the village folk and the audience too in his part as Arlecchino with juggling, cushion-spinning and backflips, tricks I’ve never seen an opera singer do. And in wonderfully rich voice, the women of the chorus appeared particularly devoted in spirit to their village counterparts, outdoing the men who occasionally drifted out of unison. 

The drama’s sense of gloom in a setting of festivity was always present and the unforgivable brutality inflicted on a woman was duly felt. To Opera San José, an exceptional job done in showing Pagliacci’s true colours and contemporary relevance!

Opera San José
California Theatre
Until 2nd December, 2018

Production Photos: Pat Kirk

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