By Lawrence Budmen

"Cavalleria Rusticana" by Pietro Mascagni and "Pagliacci" by Ruggero Leoncavallo are opera's perennial twins. These works are examples of the "verismo" school of Italian opera. "Verismo" represents operatic realism with raw emotions and violent passions coming to the fore. This unique operatic genre found an artistic parallel in the post World War 2 realistic Italian cinema of Roberto Rosselini, Vittorio Da Sicca, and the young Federico Fellini. The "Cav" and "Pag" double bill opened the 2002-2003 season of Florida Grand Opera. The performance on November 23, 2002 at Dade County Auditorium in Miami illuminated the strengths and weaknesses of FGO productions during recent seasons.

Leoncavallo was not an inspired composer, but he was a brilliant man of the theater. "Pagliacci" weaves a musico-dramatic tour-de-force which culminates in a play- within-a play that ends in a shocking display of violence. The musical and dramatic elements were astutely judged in this production. French director Renaud Doucet set the opera in an Italian village in the late 20th century. The action was always fluid, the characters were sharply delineated, and the choral groupings were cannily staged. The sets by Italian designer Roberto Lagana cleverly kept the audience's concentration on the drama by limiting the playing space. Costume designer Kristy Aitken created an odd assortment of modern attire that distracted from the action. (The costume for Nedda was tasteless.)

The pivotal character of Canio - the clown whose heart is breaking - is one of opera's great tenor roles. Clifton Forbis is a rising heldentenor with Wagnerian engagements in Vienna and Paris. His stage presence was powerful. His rage seemed real - "verismo" indeed. Most importantly, his voice had real Italianate ring. The great aria "Vesti la giubba" was sung with passionate abandon and, rightly, stopped the show. Yet his performance seemed too studied - lacking spontaneity and abandon. The British soprano Judith Howarth was riveting as the hapless Nedda and sang with a ravishingly beautiful lyric soprano. Her "Ballatella" and duet were textbook examples of superb vocalism. (Howarth confirmed the stunning impression she previously made as the four heroines in the FGO production of Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffman.") Mark Rucker revealed a large, sonorous baritone voice and was a menacing presence as the hunch back clown Tonio. British baritone Garry Magee sang with warmth and ease as Nedda's lover Silvio. (Magee had previously been a misbegotten Figaro in a misconceived, musically pallid "Barber of Seville" at FGO.)

"Cavalleria Rusticana" proved to be a less happy operatic experience. Doucet's staging was filled with dramatic tension. Lagana's set - with its many steps - was difficult for the cast to navigate and hindered the drama. Mascagni was an underrated composer. His melodies are inspired and his orchestration is gorgeous. (His neglected other works - like "Iris" and "Guglielmo Radcliffe" - deserve modern revivals.)The lush "Cavalleria" score was beautifully played by the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra in its final appearance as the pit ensemble for FGO. This is a major loss for future operatic productions. The Intermezzo in "Cavalleria" was exquisitely played by the strings. Conductor Richard Buckley caught the lyricism and passion of "Cav" and the dramatic tension of "Pag." His rhapsodically expansive conducting was the essence of "verismo" music drama. Every detail of the orchestral scores was made to count. Particularly impressive was Buckley's crisp shaping of the 18th century pastiche music in "Pag."

Mezzo-soprano Eugenie Grunewald was a commanding presence as Santuzza, the tragic heroine of "Cav." Her large, multi-colored voice is a beautiful instrument with a distinctive timbre. Her aria "Voi lo sapete" was delivered with intense emotion. Russian tenor Yuri Marusin was a crude Turiddu. He had strong high notes but his stage presence was stiff. His vocalism lacked tonal allure and suffered from poor intonation. A provincial performance!. Rucker was a superb Alfio who lit up the stage with passionate, refulgent vocalism. Melinda Pineda was a disappointment as Lola - small of voice and lacking in stage presence. Lola should be a true rival for Santuzza with a large mezzo-soprano voice and real dramatic intensity. Susan Shafer was a riveting presence as Mamma Lucia. She made a cameo role into an important presence by sheer intensity of vocal and dramatic declamation.

In "Pagliacci" the chorus sang with robust sonority and real character. Strangely, chorus master Bernard McDonald's group sounded undernourished and lethargic in "Cavalleria Rusticana."

The "Cav"-"Pag" double bill never fails to provide a compelling evening of musical theater. At its best, the FGO productions brought some fiery singing and compelling theatricality to these operatic evergreens. Yet the "tenor deficit" that has marred FGO productions for years continued to be a liability. South Florida deserves better! 

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