from the high life to the low life at Los Angeles Opera...
"PAG" alone, with the "golden couple:" Zefirrelli's spectacle of the ultimate in verismo provides element of antisymmetry to 20th anniversary celebration

The pendulum swung from palace to tenement, from high life to low life, from comedy to the end of comedy.... Franco Zeffirelli's spectacular 1996 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's verismo (or realistic) opera, Pagliacci (Clowns) , provided an element of antisymmetry to Los Angeles Opera's 20th anniversary celebration as it moved from the first day's program (Offenbach's The Grand Duchess) to the next. Whether by chance or by design, the back-to-back staging of bigger-than-life productions was clever programming: a novice to opera who saw both performances couldn't have had a better alternative to Opera 101.

Zeffirelli's productions are a feast for the eyes, enthusiastically applauded by the audience as soon as the curtains rise, as this one was. Updated from the original setting of a poor mountain village to a modern tenement somewhere in Italy, the stage fills up with all manner of street life and details - colorful, intricate, at times too numerous for the eye to take in all at once (especially if one has to glance at the supertitles above the stage to keep up with the story line), but a memorable visual experience nonetheless.

Pagliacci, Leoncavallo's only masterpiece (about a provincial touring company of actors), inspired by a real-life love-triangle story in which the jealous husband stabs his cheating wife to death, has been one one of the most popular standards in the operatic repertoire since its first performance in 1892, with the legendary Arturo Toscanini conducting. It is short, lasting little more than an hour and thus is often double-billed with a kindred opera, Pietro Mascagni's Cavalerria Rusticana and together, they are nicknamed Cav/Pag.

The opera, which LA Opera has chosen to stage in its 20th anniversary season as a stand-alone, is a play about a jealous husband within a play about, yes, a jealous husband, and the characters play double roles (or, as in the case of the unfaithful wife/actress Nedda, lead double lives). The tenor aria sung by the cuckolded husband/clown Canio, "Vesti la giubba... ridi Pagliacco," among the most ravishing in opera, is always awaited and listened to with bated breath, and a great tenor will almost always bring the house down.

In this production, the husband-and-wife team of tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Angela Gheorghiu(who made their debut appearance with the company last season in Puccini's La Bohème) sang the lead roles together for the first time in their careers. Gheorghiu(seductive, aggressive and convincing as Nedda) and Alagna (seething with jealousy as Canio) sang with sweet, soaring, golden voices that were on a couple of occasions somewhat overpowered by the orchestra which was conducted with great warmth and energy by Nicola Luisotti. Placido Domingo is still a strong favorite Canio among today's tenors, but chances are Alagna will thrive in the role as he sings it with greater frequency, and opera's "golden couple" will remain a sensation in the world of opera for many more years to come.

At Los Angeles Opera in the 2005-2006 season, they brought the house down.

Photos: ©Robert Millard, courtesy Los Angeles Opera

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