Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis expertly opens two cans of verismo worms

Once again the world is convulsed by the discovery of secrets, and the saga of Edward Snowden, his whereabouts and his revelations, illustrates that the demand to know the truth can be as relentless as the insistence that the truth be kept hidden.

People on both sides of that divide get awfully nasty. Opera loves the push-pull of this struggle, no more so than in affairs of the heart. No surprise, then, that one of most gripping productions of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis this season is the double bill of Puccini's "Il Tabarro" (The Cloak) and Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci" (The Players).

Presented here in Amanda Holden's supple English translation, the operas are prime examples of the swerve Italian opera took toward  gritty realism (verismo) at the turn of the 20th century. "Pagliacci," the more complex of the two works, lacks the clear musical focus of "Il Tabarro." But it adds a harbinger of  postmodernist irony: a layer of what happens when the deliberate, practiced illusion of entertainment is placed atop the desperate illusions that real-life romantic intrigue requires.

Canio, the head of a troupe of traveling players (a leisure-time lifeline in remote places before mass entertainment media), is suspicious of his frisky wife, Nedda, whose attractiveness has also prompted unwanted attention from the troupe's hunchback clown, Tonio. The fact that the company's entertainment makes light of adulterous shenanigans in commedia dell'arte style raises the eternal question of how successful (read: deceptive) art's transmutation of life's actual struggles can or should be.

As seen June 25, "Pagliacci" triumphantly re-created that tension. The performance of soprano Kelly Kaduce as Nedda stood out as a virtuoso exposition of great singing, incredibly flexible body language and facial expression, and an indefinable charisma that made her as mesmerizing to the OTSL audience as she is supposed to be to the onstage audience, which realizes to its horror that the waywardness of her character's affections will have a fatal outcome.

As Canio, Robert Brubaker's ferocious defense of his position both as master of the revels and as Nedda's husband was superbly controlled. Though his tenor is far from a beautiful instrument, in this role clarity and intensity are everything. Determination to get the lover's name came through as a clarion call designed to set up Canio's revenge.

Brubaker was aided in the effectiveness of the opera's biggest hit, known usually in its Italian form as "Vesti la giubba," by Christopher Akelind's lighting. The stage was mostly dark, with the central focus on lights around the dressing-room mirror, with a few echoing light accents elsewhere underscoring the aria's sense of foreboding, as Canio laments the necessity of entertaining villagers while strongly suspecting that one of them is his wife's secret lover.

As the deformed villain Tonio, Tim Mix loped and scrambled with practiced clumsiness about the stage. His attempted seduction of Nedda was performed in striking contrast to the adroit meeting of minds and bodies characterizing the liaison of Nedda with Silvio, beautifully and intensely sung by Troy Cook. Mix, of course, was also called upon to perform the Prologue, only slightly less significant a set-piece than Canio's aria, introducing the tragic action with philosophical aplomb.

Stage director Ron Daniels tweaked the stage/real-life dichotomy  by having a mute host of white-suited clowns cavort onstage during the instrumental introduction to the Prologue. The first one to bound onstage scratches his head quizzically as he looks at the "Il Tabarro" curtain with its barge-on-the-Seine image remaining from the previous show. It's a clever way to represent the illusory nature of the real-world conflicts that draw us to their theatrical presentation and are quickly replaced by fresh visions of other imaginary scenes. When that curtain is lifted as the Prologue concludes, we see the word "CIRCO" in garish large letters, outlined in lights, indicating that the itinerant players are on hand to work their time-tested magic.

Ward Stare conducted both performances insightfully, drawing from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra colorful, expansively paced playing here and for "Il Tabarro" as well.

Tim Mix lights the match ushering in fatal conclusion of "Il Tabarro."
"The Cloak" declines to place a playful mask over its essential tragedy. What hides the tragic outcome is the garment of the opera's title. It is symbolic not only of what is hidden within the desires of Georgetta (Emily Pulley) for life without the dank rootlessness of transporting goods by water, but also the comfort her husband, the laconic barge owner Michele (Tim Mix), used to extend to her beneath his cloak. That was all before the infant death of their child, however, a festering wound whose pain  exacerbates the discrepancy between their ages and their desires in life.

Pulley was extraordinarily vivid in representing the thwarted dreams of Georgetta, and the tense, veiled rapport between her and her lover Luigi (Michael Hayes) helped make the melodramatic plunge the action takes more believable. Hayes sang superbly, and his fellow stevedores, Tinca and Talpa, were given three-dimensional value by Matthew DiBattista and Thomas Hammons, respectively. Other minor roles were effectively filled, especially the elderly Talpa's cat-loving wife, Frugola, in Margaret Gawrysiak's amusing portrayal.

Direction and lighting in the final scene, when Michele lowers the body of Georgetta toward that of her just-murdered lover, framed by the cloak, could not have been more gruesomely picturesque as a final visual memory to take away from the musical splendors of the performance.