A new view of Pagliacci from the Lyric

Ailyn Perez and Russell Thomas_Pagliacci_Lyric-Opera of Chicago (photo by Kyle Flubacker)

Ailyn Perez and Russell Thomas_Pagliacci_Lyric Opera of Chicago (photo by Kyle Flubacker)

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is providing the world with a fine gift in the form of “Pagliacci.” A recorded version of Rugerro Leoncavallo’s iconic opera is available to view online free of charge for an indefinite period of time beginning at once.

It is difficult to say where the first reference to a sad clown who is laughing on the outside but crying on the inside begins but surely the character of Pagliacci is one of the best known. It is a short opera at roughly 90 minutes with a fairly straightforward plot and lyrical melodies that makes it a very good first opera for the uninitiated and a perennial favorite among many aficionados.

“Pagliacci” was indeed my introduction to opera at about age 10 when my mother sang as a chorus member in the Chicago Opera Guild based in the Fine Arts Building.

Of course the great Caruso gave “Pagliacci” to the word in 1907 when the composer himself directed the famed tenor in the first phonograph recording of an entire opera making them both worldwide sensations.

Similar to a number of Shakespeare plays “Pagliacci” is based on a play within a play. The story is centered around a troupe of actors performing a commedia dell’arte performance, a theater style that originated in Venice and features standard character types that included at least three clowns. In the opera’s commedia dell’arte company the character of Pagliacci is played by Canio and his wife Nedda plays Columbine while Tonio plays one of the lesser parts.

In this updated Lyric version Nedda (Ailyn Pérez) is an unfaithful wife whose current love interest is stagehand Silvio (Lucas Meachem). Tonio (Quinn Kelsey) is secretly in love with Nedda but she rejects him. His adoration turns to resentment. Seeking revenge, Tonio leads Canio (Russell Thomas) to witness for himself Nedda’s unfaithfulness. In a rage, Canio pursues Silvio who escapes.

In good theatrical tradition the troupe evidently decides “the show must go on.” In preparation for his performance as Pagliacci Canio sings the famed aria “Vesti la giubba” where he laments that the world sees him as a ridiculous clown when he is in fact a man with deep emotions.

It is no doubt at this point that Canio resolves to redeem his manhood, then during the performance demands that Nedda reveal the identity of her lover. She refuses to give him up and Canio kills her. Silvio, working nearby, leaps to her defense and is likewise dispatched by the enraged clown.  Somewhat amused Tonio announces that the “comedy is over.”

Lyric Opera stage (during a recent concert) Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago
Lyric Opera stage (during a recent concert) Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

The brilliant part of this Lyric Opera of Chicago’s streaming version of “Pagliacci” (directed by Peter McClintock, with film direction by Matt Hoffman and scenic design by Maria DeFabo Akin and Scott Wolfson) is the use of the Lyric Opera House itself as the set location.

The action begins outside the building with baritone Quinn Kelsey singing the prologue as he strolls into and through the building ultimately on to the empty stage where the bulk of the performance will take place. This is a story about actors so the Lyric creative team takes full advantage of the company’s readily available stagecraft apparatus as the backdrop. The performers are in modern dress and the play-within-a- play substitutes iconic commedia dell’arte characters for those of a more modern art form referencing a television situation comedy.

This is where it gets a bit muddy for me. I love the concept but in my view costume designer Scott Marr is missing something by not having Pagliacci in a more comic costume. After all it is Pagliacci’s ridiculous visual persona contrasted with his depth of emotion that is the essence of the character and the story.

Additionally, tenor Thomas who has an outstanding voice, does not give “vesti la giubba” full throttle. No doubt the feeling is that since this a more intimate filmed version he did not want to seem “over the top.” However, the result is a kind of tepid emotion that does not fully convey the character’s torment that will ultimately lead him to murder. This, together with his lack of costume or make-up as a reference flattens the storyline.

There is still plenty to love about the production with its backstage views and enjoyable melodies. The always brilliant Lyric Chorus led by Michael Black seems to be having a great time singing towards the proscenium for an entirely new point-of-view while Enrique Mazzola conducts the thrilling orchestra from some unknown location, presumably a practice room onsite.

Details: “Pagliacci” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is online through January 2022 (at least). Running time is about 90 minutes. Visit LyricOpera 

Reno Lovison

(Ed note: Viewing the film is free but requires registration. To register go to Pagliacci Lyric Opera of Chicago.)

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