Amarillo — Two one-act operas, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, form a pair that seems to always appear together in opera seasons. Cav/Pag, as they are called, have much in common—maybe too much in common—to make for a satisfying night at the opera. Both are parmigianino soaked Italian blood-and-guts operas with love betrayed and violent murders. Both represent the verismo style of operas that took the world by a storm. No longer operas about crowned heads and other royalty. Verismo is about the regular people— the peasants—and is set in their rundown dusty villages. Passions run high and tempers are quicksilver. The music wears its heart on its sleeve and characters pour their sorrowful broken hearts out to anyone who will listen using gorgeous soaring melodies.
The Amarillo Opera brought these two masterpieces to the stage at the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts, opening the group’s 2014-15 season. General Director David O’Dell does a marvelous job of producing opera on a level that many considerably larger cities would envy. He brings in singers well on their way to a major career, even some established artists, as well as utilizing fine local singers.
These days, sets are shared (rented) between opera companies because most companies cannot afford to build their own for every show. This means that O’Dell can have some of the best sets in the business, and he takes full advantage of that. Costumes are also rented to add to what the company already has. Put it all together and, thanks to O’Dell’s ability to get 11 cents out of every dime, Amarillo gets grand opera.
Cavalleria always starts out the pairing. The plot concerns Turiddu who deserts Santuzza for his former girl, Lola, who is now with Alfio. The devastated Santuzza reveals Lola’s dalliance to Alfio. An offstage fight ensues and Turiddu ends up dead and Santuzza ridden with guilt. All this happens on Easter morning, by the way.
Pagliacci is concerned with a ragtag touring acting company presenting Punch and Judy shows in one small town after another. The plot of the play the present is as old as the middle ages’ stylized commedia dell'arte.
Canio runs the company and plays Pagliaccio. His wife, Nedda, plays Colimbine. There are two other actors in the company. Bebbe plays Arlecchino and the hunchback Tonio plays Taddeo. The time-worn plot of their stage show runs like this: Columbine is secretly seeing Arlecchino. She rejects an advance by the grotesque Taddeo who takes his revenge by revealing her affair with Arlecchino to Pagliaccio. He barges in on the two lovers and lots of comic chaos ensues.
The plot of the opera moves this action out of the opera and into the messy lives of the actors as well. Nedda is about to run off with one of the handsome fellows in town, Tonio, lusts after Nedda. She hits him with a whip when he won’t take “yuck no” as answer. In revenge, Tonio reveals her affair to Canio and he murders Nedda in his jealous rage.
Ah, opera—mingling, mating, murder, mayhem and music!
As usual with the Amarillo Opera, the singers on Oct. 4 were first-rate. Unfortunately, the conductor, Christian Capacaccio, was no one’s friend, which added a great burden on everyone in the cast, including the chorus and especially the orchestra. More about him later.
In Cav’s critical soprano role of Santuzza, Lori Phillips, exceeded the high expectations we all had from her press. She made an impressive Metropolitan Opera debut as Senta in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and is building an international career singing all of the big dramatic soprano roles, from Puccini’s Turandot to Wagner’s Brünnhilde.
She has a huge voice, dark and lustrous, with power to spare. Santuzza is a role that is sometimes sung by a mezzo and we are used to hearing a dark voice. Whether she added it for this role or not, Phillips performance had a mezzo sheen to it.
As an actor, she was convincing enough, but one-dimensional. Admittedly, Santuzza is at the nadir of her life and she is rightly miserable. Further, we are just tuning in to her at this particular terrible moment. However, it would have been effective to see some flashes of the woman Turiddu fell in love with. If this is what she is like all the time these days, you can understand why he would want to get away.
Saundra DeAthos gave a dynamite performance in the other opera’s leading soprano role, Pag’s Nedda.
She greatly impressed in 2010 as Cio-Cio San in the Amarillo Opera’s production of Puccini’s Butterfly, so much was expected here. She certainly delivered. Her voice sounded lighter than it did in Puccini’s tragic tale and it suited this role. Whether or not she adjusts the timbre of her voice to match the role is unknown, but her bright and limber soprano was perfect for Nedda.
As an actor, she also excelled. She was smoldering in her slip, appropriately goofy in her Columbina get up and ferocious in her losing confrontation with her husband.
The very sturdy tenor Raul Melo sang the leading roles in both operas. While this practice is rare, it is done occasionally for an exceptional tenor. At the Met recently, Roberto Alagna and Jose Cura sang both roles in one evening. Before that, Plácido Domingo and a few others did the same thing. Dallas’ own dramatic tenor, Allan Glassman, sang them both in Santa Barbara a few years ago.
The problem lies in the different requirements for the two roles. Turiddu (Cav) is a lighter role than Canio (Pag), requiring more lyric singing and long stretching lines. Canio (Pag) is given shorter phrases to sing that are suited to dramatic outbursts. Thus it needs a heavier voice with an extra helping of Italian squillo.
Moment of Geek: Squillo is the way a true Italian tenor sings a high note. Sometimes called the “ping,” it is when a tenor’s high note is perfectly placed in the upper register and his physical equipment allows it to peak (supposedly) in the 2-5 KHz frequency range, Corelli and Pavarotti had it galore. Domingo also has it but his darker voice lacked the brilliance of Pavarotti’s. Many lyric tenors sort-of have it while others, with perfectly fine high notes, don’t have it at all. Thus, tenors usually stick to roles that match their squillo quotient. A squillo high note sung by a tenor in Mozart’s Magic Flute would sound silly and a lyric high note in Canio’s famous aria would be disappointing.
Melo does fine in both operas vocally, splitting the difference. He lacks the lyrical ability to spin out long phrases in Cav, but he makes up for it in sheer vocal beauty. But he is on his home turf in Pag, and you can tell it from the way he settles into the role. Vesi la guibba, probably the most famous tenor aria in history (with Puccini’s Nessun dorma a close second), was stunning and not over sung or over-emoted; just right. He was on the wooden side as an actor, but you can’t have everything.
The two baritone roles are also different in the same way: Alfio (Cav) requiring a more lyric approach than Tonio (Pag). As with the tenors, baritone Michael Corvino sang both roles. His Alfio had all the right swagger and vocal abilities. Unfortunately, he looked forward more than at the others on the stage and his street clothes costume made it more difficult for us to include in the opera. That aside, he did a fine job. As Tonio, Corvino was much better dramatically. We are used to hearing a heavier baritone voice in this role, but he made a good case for a more lyric approach.
This role (Tonio in Pag) has the added acting challenge of portraying a deformed character—usually a Rigoletto-esque hump on his back. He did a convincing job of this, although the hump looked like he left the coat hanger in his coat when he put it on than a real deformity.
Baritone Mark Womack, as Silvio (Cav), was the best actor of both casts. His career has equal helpings of Broadway and opera and it shows in his performance. His beautiful lyric baritone and handsome good looks didn’t hurt either. After all, Silvio is the only romantic lead in either show.
The supporting roles were terrific. The most outstanding was tenor Nathan Granner as Beppe (Pag). He was earnest when trying to separate Canio and Nedda and delightfully comic when playing Arlecchino.
As Turiddu’s overwrought mother (Pag), Janice Meyerson, displayed a deep contralto/mezzo with lots of projection. Sarah Heltzel, a real looker, was a flirtatious Lola (Cav), but a fast and wide vibrato detracts from an otherwise lovely voice.
As for the set, this production of Cav/Pag used the same quaint and charming town square for both operas. It was rented from the Utah Opera and was designed by Shawn Fisher.
In a way, this dual use made the operas relate to each other more than usual. The same setting implies that Canio’s troupe came through town shortly after the tragedy with Turiddu happened. In fact, Alfio’s bullwhip is still hanging on the door frame and it comes in handy when Nedda chases off Tonio’s slobbery spooning.
Costumes were brown, serviceable and era-appropriate. As previously mentioned, only Alfio looked like he arrived at the theater too late to change out of his street clothes. The commedia costumes from the TCO Costume Shop were quite wonderful splashes of satin in motley colors. Modern haircuts on the men always look strange in a period piece but putting them all in wigs is a huge added expense. (How about no haircuts for two to three months before the show?)
Daniel Helfgot’s minimal direction got the job done but there was a lot of standing around and singers only moving when they had a line to sing. The chorus, frequently in its obligatory semicircle, sang beautifully (conductor problems not withstanding) and did a good job of reacting to what was going on most of the time.
This leaves us with the conductor, Christian Capacaccio, to discuss. He simply did not have a grasp of the style of either opera. As a result, the usually sharp orchestra was ragged throughout, which created intonation problems. Playing in tune is secondary to knowing where you are or catching the tempo so you can play with better ensemble. Capacaccio does not breathe with his singers so his idea of the phrases did match with the singers or the composers. They become like run-on sentences without punctuation. Sudden ritards and returns to the tempo substituted for the rubato (give and take) that is so critical to Italian opera. He also set nearly impossible tempi in the fast sections. He gave no latitude to the stage, which resulted in a lack of ensemble between the singers and the orchestra. When things went off the rails, which happed frequently, his beat got larger and more swooping rather than smaller and more precise (which was what was needed). On Saturday, there were even a few true disasters.
Perhaps he was having a bad night. It happens even to the best conductors. However, the Amarillo Opera assembled a cast that could grace any regional opera house in the country and an orchestra that is capable of fine playing. He could have done so much more with it.