Michael Mayes in Boston Lyric Opera's "Pagliacci"

Boston Lyric Opera Stages Environmental 'Pagliacci'

Ed Tapper READ TIME: 4 MIN.

In the wake of Odyssey Opera's stunning presentation of Saint-Saens' rarely performed "Henry VIII," Boston Lyric Opera opened its season this weekend with a seasoned warhorse, Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." Due to its relative brevity, the 75-minute opera is usually performed as half of a double-bill, paired most frequently with Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana." BLO and director David Lefkowich devised the concept of placing the work in an actual carnival setting, expanding the evening to include attractions one might encounter at a local fair. Having utilized the venue for Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti" last year, the company returned to the Steriti Memorial Rink in the North End to create its fairground. The foyer was transformed into a bustling midway, with games of chance, amusements and acrobats. Magician Dave Chandler was the standout, performing mindboggling slight of hand for audience members as they entered.

A raised platform was erected in the center of the main floor, which housed the action, with the orchestra at the rear. The fanciful sets of Julia Noulin-Merat evoked the appropriate circus-like atmosphere. A massive painted mural of a clown's head dominated the proscenium, with garlands of colored fabric and strings of lights festooning the ceiling. As the production updated the work to modern times, the costumes consisted mostly of street clothes; although Charles Neumann designed some ingenious creations (by designer Charles Neumann) inspired by Italian Commedia dell'Arte for the traveling players.

BLO's "immersive" production sought to expand Leoncavallo's "play within a play" concept by placing the chorus and some of the action in the aisles amid the audience, thereby bringing onlookers more directly into the drama. Chorus members and characters entered from all doorways, and the stage action was unrelenting. This style of rapid, non-stop action is quite popular with millennials raised on video games, but does not necessarily do justice to the composer's vision. It made some sense in the orchestral prelude, establishing a carnival-like mood, and introducing some of the players. However, during the exquisite intermezzo, aerial dancers performed death-defying feats suspended from the ceiling, which elicited regular applause, completely sabotaging the introspective mood of this gorgeous moment. Audiences of any age should be able to listen to a three-minute orchestral selection without the need of constant distraction.

Lauren Michelle and Omar Najmi in Boston Lyric Opera's "Pagliacci"

The hyperactive direction would have been more detrimental had the singing been less successful. It was announced that tenor Rafael Rojas was recovering from a throat infection, but would sing the key role of Canio. In spite of some murky passages in his lower and middle registers, he sang quite well. Many of his high notes had a true, resounding ring. His "Vesti la Giubba," perhaps the most famous tenor aria in all of opera, went quite well. He avoided any of the traditional laughs and sobs, receiving an enthusiastic ovation from the audience.

Soprano Lauren Michelle made her debut with BLO on this occasion, and it was an impressive one. Her Nedda was well acted and sung. The voice is supple, with a rich timbre; and she sings with subtlety and dynamic nuance. This was especially apparent in the love duet, in this production restored to its original length. Although the opera was sung in English, the company decided to present this duet in the original Italian, claiming it to be the language of love. Switching languages halfway through the performance, then back again, proved confusing and utterly pointless. (The English translation is Bill Bankes-Jones.)

Baritone Michael Mayes was in fine voice as Tonio. His ample, solid baritone and fine diction made for an excellent "Prologue." By contrast baritone Tobias Geenhalgh possesses a lighter, lyric sound, which served perfectly for the role of Nedda's lover Silvio. In the love duet, he was the ideal vocal complement to Michelle.

The chorus and extras deserve special praise for their boundless energy in enacting all the complex stage direction. As Boston audiences have come to expect, music director David Angus was firmly at the helm throughout the evening.

With the pre-concert sideshow, and the production's frenetic energy, BLO's "Pagliacci" would be a wonderful introduction into the operatic realm for very, young people seeking to explore the form. Yet its musical merits are of high enough an order to satisfy opera aficionados as well. Performances run through October 6.

Remaining performances of Boston Lyric Opera's "Pagliacci" are Wednesday, October 2 and Friday, October 4 at 8 pm. (Pre-show Fairground opens at 7 pm); and Sunday, October 6 at 3:30 pm (Pre-show Fairground opens at 2:30 pm) at the DCR Steriti Memorial Rink. 561 Commercial Street,Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Boston Lyric Opera website.

by Ed Tapper

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