David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
NYC Opera's Double Bill: Stick Around After Intermission
Friday, September 09, 2016 - 10:16 AM
Still in the first calendar year of its resurrection, the New York City Opera can't help but be scrutinized not just for what's onstage, but what it means in the ongoing artistic health of the institution. And the answers that came with each act of its double bill of Rachmaninoff's Aleko and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci that opened on Thursday for a four-performance run at the Rose Theater were this: An increasingly solid musical infrastructure but still-inconsistent results, with a tepid Aleko and a Pagliacci that packed the necessary punch and went its own way theatrically with rather interesting results.
The idea of this particular double bill has only recently been making the rounds in opera companies. Both operas have verismo plots about ragingly jealous men killing their wives and rivals — Aleko in the context of a Gypsy camp where romantic dalliances are taken for granted, and Pagliacci in a nomadic Italian theatrical troupe where the jealous husbands at least have cultural precedents to back them up. The pairing is a good idea but only in a production that keenly addresses the needs of Aleko, a fragile though often-inspired student work by Rachmaninoff, which premiered in 1892 around the same time as Pagliacci. Those needs were often met half-heartedly, so much that even opera nerds who simply want to see the rarely staged Aleko are advised to do so only if they also have an appetite for Pagliacci.
Though the City Opera has used scenery borrowed from elsewhere, this new production is self-originated. John Farrell's design serves both works in a set dominated by a railroad box car that resembled a make-shift residence for the Aleko Gypsies and unfolded into a commedia dell'arte stage for the Pagliacci theater troupe. The chorus and orchestra in Aleko were reasonably good under conductor James Meena. Scene-setting dance interludes — choreographed in authoritative quasi-folk Moiseyev Dance Company style by Andrei Kisselev — were perhaps the best part. But while the singers could all do the job, especially Jason Karn and Kevin Thompson as Gypsies, one crucial scene after another with the leading characters failed to generate any heat or theatrical conviction. Stefan Szkafarowsky as the aging murderer Aleko, and Inna Dukach as his younger faithless wife Zemfira, often seemed a bit lost while executing the necessary physical aspects of their roles. Some moments were embarrassing.
After intermission, the opening flourish of Pagliacci seemed to leap out of the orchestra pit — thanks to Meena — promising something more than a mere rerun of a fail-safe warhorse. If this generation's City Opera can't find a fledgling Placido Domingo (as did the previous iteration), then the casting can at least be intriguingly unconventional — the case with tenor Francesco Anile in the central role of the murderously jealous Canio.
In a setting updated to 1950s Italy, Anile played off the older man/younger woman dynamic of Aleko, being made to look much older than 54 so that the opera is not just about operatic rage. Rather he is a man coping with his waning manhood, his departing wife Nedda representing his absolute last chance at romantic happiness. In the famous aria "Vesti la giubba," Anile hit all the right notes with a tenor that was more piercing than glamorous while conveying depths of grief even more than heights of rage. Few encounters I've had with Pagliacci so handily transcended the operatic devices that Leoncavallo codified here. This was genuinely tragic theater.
Jessica Rose Cambio sang Nedda with a full-bodied Italianate soprano while also navigating the character's repugnant pride and endearing longing. Indeed, none of the characters came off simplistically as black or white under Lev Pugliese's stage direction. As the lustful hunchback Tonio, Michael Corvino was more a slightly disabled low-life than Quasimodo, and with his good musico-dramatic chops, was the better for it. Gustavo Feulien made you wish that his character of Silvio had more to sing.
The villagers were a force of their own; City Opera seems to be developing a kick-ass chorus. Farrell's scenery managed to be picturesque and functional. Only in the final stage picture did Pagliacci's inspiration run a bit dry: You had appalled villagers, a few corpses, a bereft Pagliacci, but no overall image that eloquently encapsulated the opera's tragedy.