SAN FRANCISCO: Opera San Jose successfully kicked off the second production of their 2018-2019 season with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Clowns) at the California Theatre. With every opera it performs, the talented Opera San Jose resident ensemble and symphony continue to impress. And this edition of Pagliacci was no exception.
Opera San Jose: Pagliacci storyline
For those unfamiliar with the Pagliacci story line, a love story at the very core of this tragic tale. And as many an opera goes, this one offers a love story with a less than favorable ending. Indeed, there are no Hollywood endings in opera. Spoiler alert: Someone or more than one someone is going to die. But it wouldn’t be opera if we didn’t shed a few tears.
The story is a little difficult to track at first. But in this case, reality and fantasy meet in a tragic ending. The four lead characters (Nedda, Canio (aka “Pagliacci”), Tonio and Beppe) are comedic actors in a troupe that travels around from village to village performing their era’s version of a standard sitcom.
Love lost, lost scorned
In this case, the plot follows the standard commedia dell’arte tale of the clueless and often much-older husband who fails to see his wife carrying on with another man behind his back. Unfortunately, in this opera, the routine comic saga of a secret lover, a jilted lover and a jealous husband becomes all-too-real for Canio, the leader of the troupe and the actor who portrays the hapless husband on stage. Canio is the clown who must laugh and make others laugh while masking his personal grief after learning that his wife Nedda has, in fact, betrayed him with another man.
The troupe’s comic skit remains the same from town to town. On stage, the actress Nedda is having an affair with Beppe. When Nedda’s husband Pagliacci (Canio) discovers the truth, slapstick comedy ensues. But there are two twists in the opera’s story. First, Nedda is actually married to Canio and is having a real-life affair with another man named Silvio. The second twist: Tonio, her humpbacked co-star in the troupe, is secretly in love with Nedda as well.
Tonio’s Love Lost
Tonio cannot hold his passion for Nedda secret any longer. After Canio and Beppe leave with the villagers for drinks, he professes his undying love for her. Nedda laughs in his face, makes fun of him and his physical deformity and physically pushes him away. Tonio runs away feeling hurt, rejected and betrayed.
Shortly thereafter, Silvio, Nedda’s real-life lover appears and they have a fairly public display of affection in the town center when they think no one is watching. Of course, Tonio witnesses the infidelity and runs to get Canio. Canio sneaks up on the secret lovers, catching them mid-canoodle.
Silvio scampers off into the town, fearing for his life as Canio threatens Nedda with a dagger. Beppe steps in and stops Canio from stabbing Nedda just in time. After all, they have a performance for the town at 7 pm. Quite simply, they have to pull it together in the name of art. The show must go on.
Art mirroring life
With the performance mirroring real life, it is too much for Canio to take and he snaps in mid-play. During the show, the “discovery” scene gets a bit too real. The onstage audience senses that something is wrong, but isn’t sure if he’s just a really good actor, or if this is a real revenge murder. Canio repeatedly stabs Nedda in the heat of the moment and kills her.
Silvio comes rushing in from hiding and tries to save her, but it is too late. Canio and Silvio battle and end up killing each other, at least in this production. The end.
This is a very short opera as far as operas go, and it’s often paired with another short opera to make a standard-length evening at the opera. While the story seems a bit melodramatic to modern tastes, it was quite daring in its time. The ensemble, musicians and conductor all did a wonderful job bringing it to life for 21st century audiences.
Opera San Jose: Pagliacci star performances
This opera has a grand cast of supporting characters. They include Nedda, her husband Canio (his on stage persona is Pagliacci), her real life lover Silvio, Tonio (the humpback man longing for Nedda’s affections), and Beppe (the co-star and lover in the comedic traveling show). All five opening night leads combined in one very powerful performance.
The Star of the Show
That said, there was one true star of the night. This opera couldn’t survive without a very strong performance by Nedda. She is in many ways the entire story. Everyone wants her and we need to be convinced of the reasons why. Among others, she needs to be alluring, flirtatious, beautiful, confident, indifferent and even a bit mean.
Maria Natale (soprano) performed as Nedda on opening night, and embodied this complex character impressively. Baritone Emmett O’Hanlon delivered a masterful performance as the lovestruck Silvio. Mason Gates (tenor) as Beppe. Also in top voice were Cooper Nolan (tenor) as Canio and Anthony Clark Evans (baritone). There will be a long and bright future ahead for all of these stars.
Pagliacci remains onstage now through December 2. For tickets and more information, visit the Opera San Jose website.