Performance Review: Opera San Jose’s Production of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci”

[Reviewed by Christopher Bernard]


Opera San Jose opened its twenty-eighth season with a brave choice. Their production of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” – a passionate, brilliant and thrilling one – has been given an unusual partner, taken from the dark years of the mid-twentieth century.

Usually we get Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” its near-contemporary and thematic twin, coupled as “Cav and Pag.” Pag has more in common with Cav – the same heart, the same themes, almost the same brain – than is often realized: Leoncavallo wrote and composed Pag to prove he could beat Mascagni at his own game. Now the two competitors are performed together, joined at the hip, apparently forever.

Not this time. Instead we got a trickier proposition: the thorny desolation of Francis Poulenc’s tour-de-force for solo soprano: “La voix humaine.”

“Pagliacci” remains one of the world’s favorite operas. An ever-fresh object lesson in the endless reflections between life and art, it tells the story of an itinerant theatrical company arriving one day in a small Italian town around 1900, where the company’s leader, and stage clown, discovers his actress wife has taken a lover. The tragic outcome is then enacted in the guise of the play they perform that night.

This is an opera, with its much-loved aria “Vesta la giubba,” that is peculiarly dependent on its tenor, and in this case, the audience was swept, by Alexander Boyer as the tragic clown, time and again into the peculiar rapture only opera can induce.

Close behind Boyer in success was Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste as the wife, miserable in her unfaithfulness, whose voice, strong yet sweet, and delightful stage presence defeated one or two unwise directorial decisions, to create a character still sympathetic despite all her sins. Krassen Karagiozov did a fine job with the rather blank role of the lover Silvio, and Jason Detwiler was luridly grotesque as the randy hunchback Tonio and the Prologue’s tendentious Taddeo.

No notice of this production can be adequate without mentioning the superb chorus, under Andrew Whitfield: admirably warm and transparent and clear – a joy.

The handsome minimalist set is arranged like big children’s toy blocks set around the stage under a cerulean sky subtly darkening at key moments and raked with high-cloud lights imaginatively deflected from corner to corner to point up the fantasy at the heart of this archetypal verismo tale.

But there is a problem with this particular simplicity: it undercuts some of the story’s realism, and, as now designed, does not adequately separate the inner stage, on which the play within a play acts out the opera’s’ key drama, from the frame stage representing “reality.” This separation must be made graphically clear if the opera’s point is to be made effectively. If the entire set looks too artificial, there is nowhere for the mise-en-scene that becomes a mise-en-abime to go.

Oddly enough, a similar problem plagues “La voix humaine,” though here the problem is in Jean Cocteau’s libretto. This lengthy monolog amounts to overhearing half a late-night phone call, taken in a well-appointed apartment overlooking the rooftops of Paris, between a woman and her lover who is in the process, to be blunt, of dumping her. The trouble is that the monolog, opening on a note of desperation in the woman, has nowhere to go emotionally but down into despair: there was little drama for me, as I knew from the opening pantomime where the story was headed, and never suspected for a moment that I might be wrong.

This structural weakness creates a tedium at the heart of the opera that the jagged, recitative-like vocal line does not help, and not even the graceful singing of the principal, or the handsome music from the pit or the elegant set design (the window frames, doors, and the room’s broad lines are sketched in like a big-box Raoul Dufy in white on black) are enough to save it. The most persuasive music in the piece is, unfortunately for the singer, given to the orchestra.

Susan Hanson handled the part with great skill, not least because of her finely tuned acting. She is graced with a voice both winning and rich.

Bryan Nies conducted both operas stirringly. The orchestra, despite some weakness in the violins when exposed, did beautiful work. The oboist was especially fine.

Before ending, I should mention the intimate splendor of the California Theatre, which provides Opera San Jose’s home stage. Renovated a few years ago with many sensitive and brilliant touches (including an example of the original theater’s stage rigging, displayed in the back lobby), this ingenious jewel of a building, formed on an awkwardly shaped lot as an enormous L, is as much a stimulating, and inspiring, pleasure as the performances going on inside it.

Christopher Bernard is a San Francisco writer and founding editor of Caveat Lector magazine.