Launching the season with aplomb, the San Diego Opera’s production of Pagliacci is robust and eminently enjoyable. The swift (90 minute) production is directed by Andrew Sinclair and features a quintet of five singers.
The improbably effective plot features a jealous husband Canio whose wife Nedda performs in the same theatrical clown troupe; “pagliacci” is the plural in Italian for clown. When they roll into a village in Calabria, Nedda is pursued both by Tonio from the troupe and her true love Silvio. The play-within-a-play structure can work well (as it does in Kiss Me Kate) and here the jealousy fuels the structure. The townspeople first warn Canio to be wary of his wife’s allure, and when Tonio is spurned by her, he grows jealous. Tonio spies Nedda in flagrante delicto with Silvio, and brings a drunk Canio to the scene. Nedda refuses to identify the fleeing Silvio, and Canio believes he can unearth the identity of his wife’s lover during the course of the performance about to commence for the townspeople. Indeed, the performance for the townspeople grows all too real as Canio’s rage pushes beyond thespian-driven effort. Silvio, seen squirming during the action, finally reveals himself, and Canio delivers three fatal stabs: Nedda, Silvio and himself.
The opera premiered in 1892 with Arturo Toscanini at the helm. Composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo, it remains his only opera that is still widely staged (indeed San Diego Opera has assayed Pagliacci four prior times over its five decade existence).
Frank Porretta plays Canio with vigor, his tenor voice is full with anguish as he cries the opera’s central theme: “laugh pagliaccio over your shattered love.” His wife Nedda is played by the Romanian soprano Adina Nitescu. Her role requires a balance of beauty and torment, which Nitescu provides. David Adam Moore handles the role of Silvio with confidence, almost convincing Nedda to depart before the performance. Stephen Powell as Tonio opens and closes Pagliacci. His prologue literally sets the stage(s) and the concluding line is also his: La Commedia è finita! – “The comedy is ended!” In other productions, Canio is given the final line, but director Sinclair here goes with the composer’s original intent. Given that Tonio is the most deliberate and perhaps manipulative of the characters, I prefer this ending.
Conductor Yves Abel is firmly in control. John Coyne’s set design is evocative, placing the village’s stage just off center to provide space for the developing action prior to the troupe’s performance for the village.
With a magnificent season still to come (Elixir of Love by Donizetti, A Masked Ball by Verdi, Don Quixote by Massenett and Requiem by Verdi), the San Diego Opera has opened its season strongly.