By Lawrence Budmen

Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci have been opera’s perennial twin bill almost since the day of the operas’ first performances in the early 1890’s. Mascagni and Leoncavallo exemplified the verismo movement – strikingly realistic dramas welded to music of overwhelming passion. While both composers wrote worthy full length works, their early one act pieces were their chief claim to immortality.

For those who feel jaded at the slightest mention of another staging of this familiar double bill, the Palm Beach Opera offered the perfect solution – a stunning, theatrically provocative production by Stephen Lawless. Lawless reset the operas in the 1930’s, avoiding the basic black look of most Cavalleria production and the peasant ambience of too many Pagliaccis. Lawless’s mise-en-scene recalled the early, neo-realistic films of Federico Fellini. Ashley Martin-Davis’s sets and costumes and Wolfgang Gobbel’s white lighting had that bleached earth look that so characterized the black and white Italian cinema of the early 1950’s – i.e. Roberto Rosselini, Vittorio DaSica, Fellini.

In Cavalleria, Mama Lucia’s restaurant became the town gathering place where malicious gossip helps fuel the opera’s tempestuous events toward the ultimate tragic conclusion. Pagliacci recalled Fellini’s La Strada with its ramshackle traveling circus populated with explosive, eccentric characters. Lawless gave these works a new lease on life with productions that breathed with vital theatricality.

Palm Beach Opera artistic director Bruno Aprea populated the stage with vibrant, attractive singing actors. At the December 8 season opener (at the Kravis Center) Mascagni’s music was excitingly served. While Anamaria Chiuri’s mezzo voice is neither large nor particularly rich, she embodied Santuzza’s tragic dilemma vividly. Chiuri sang every bar with white heated intensity. Brandon Jovanovich was vocally bright and charismatic as Turiddu. His vividly detailed portrait of Turiddu’s recklessness was telling and his final Addio alla Madre was heartrending. But perhaps Lawless’s erred in making Turiddu such an unsympathetic character. Veteran mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias commanded the stage as Mama Lucia. Still strong and potent of voice, Elias dominated every scene. Gary Simpson displayed a capable but limited baritone as the rough hewn Alfio. (Where are the singers who can caress these baritonal villains with vocal velvet the way Cornell MacNeil and Robert Merrill used to?) Sarah Lambert was a dramatically and vocally glamorous Lola.

In Pagliacci, Jon Frederick West sang and acted Canio with reams of passionate abandon. Unfortunately his voice is now afflicted with a wide vibrato – the result of too many Siegfrieds in innumerable productions of the Wagner Ring cycle. Nevertheless his performance was never less than riveting. Angela Maria Blasi, a long time Mozart specialist in Munich and Vienna, was plush casting as Nedda. Her exquisite vocalism, fine attention to color and dynamics, and effervescent personality were a burst of sunlight on stage. The final violent confrontation between Ms. Blasi and West was frighteningly realistic and bracing. Simpson was much more effective as the crippled, vengeful clown Tonio. Michael Todd Simpson unfurled a gorgeous lyric baritone as Nedda’s lover Silvio. With Blasi and Simpson singing verismo as bel canto, their duet became the vocal highlight of the performance. As Beppe, Albert Rudolph Lee was acrobatically agile and vocally sumptuous. His lovely, musically distinctive lyric tenor commanded attention. This young singer is more than promising. He should be marvelous in the Mozart repertoire. (With clowns and acrobats, Lawless turned Pagliacci into an eye filling spectacle – shades of Zeferelli?)

Under new chorus master Greg Ritchey, the chorus exhibited superb unity and vociferous full throated flights. The Bell Chorus in Pagliacci was particularly delightful, both light and sensuous. Aprea conducted impassioned performances that took these scores seriously. His rapt, lyrical view of Cavalleria and the spirited, feathery commedia dell arte sequence in Pagliacci were projected with consummate skill. Aprea has turned the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra into a first class ensemble. Playing of such suavity and polish is rare in any opera pit.

Too often Mascagni and Leoncavallo are not taken seriously. This production did not make that mistake. Here was a brilliant, revisionist view of Cav and Pag, sung with conviction by an attractive cast. The Palm Beach Opera has opened its season on a stellar note.

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