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March 30, 1999

Pagliacci: The Story of a Sad Clown

A Review by Pat and Ernie Pinson

For the second time this season, Mobile Opera elected to present on March 18 and 20 an opera taken from real life and actual events (La Traviata was the first Oct 98). Leoncavallo, who wrote both the music and the libretto, heard this true story when just a boy of an actor who killed his wife after a performance in his hometown, Montalto, Italy, in 1870. His father had been the trial judge.

This somewhat new device of using verismo (truth) in which Leoncavallo presented true-to-life events allows clever interplay oscillating between the opera's real life story and the opera's internal pretended story. Hence, Canio of the external flesh and blood story kills his wife when the pretend story breaks into his real world. Many clever double meanings can come from this system of shadow boxing and mirror reflecting parallels.

The second source is an eminently popular type of drama that sprung up in Italy in the sixteenth century called commedia dell' arte, a troupe of strolling, stock characters (usually eight) who performed a series of mostly extemporaneous plays. These eight characters even had stock names like Pagliacci (which means clown), Colombina, and Harlequin who appear in this opera.

Thus the opera opened with an interesting non-set -- a bare stage with two or three workers checking lights, laying out a costume, moving a tree. One would have thought that somehow it was the wrong night for the opera. But as the orchestra played the overture, one of the workers began to sing that we were about to see a production about a clown - - the flats began to drop, and the set materialized as we watched. What a dramatic opening to an opera that is itself about putting a play on stage!

By the time the villagers assemble in their earth-colored costumes, the stage is complete. The blocking and movement of the chorus was quite good, although it seemed at times they moved in slow motion when they were singing about excitement. Beautiful voices were par for the evening. There was not one weak point. Voices were well matched in color and power. Tonio, the wicked clown, and Silvio, the lover, were especially effective in their stage presence. Tonio's attempted rape carried the realism home a little stronger than usual and continued to build the unity of this bold verismo presentation. Nedda's sensuality pervaded the stage throughout Act I, and her best acting was in the love scenes. Canio's famous aria, Vesti la giubba, where he gets ready for the show to go on in spite of personal pain, was acted out on the small stage. Full of remorse, anger and revenge, the scene is almost overacted, although the vocal delivery was excellent.

Act II, being much shorter, is basically the presentation of the sixteenth century commedia dell' arte traveling stage of stock characters. Here, a Mobile University student, Chauncey Packer as Beppo, holds his own with the principals. He sings exceptionally well and acted as if quite used to being on stage. The whole stylized little play becomes a little too big for such a small area -- which would normally fit right into the concept of this intruding reality, but it becomes a little clumsy at times. Still, it was funny and delightful. Nedda's recovery was especially good after being thrown to the floor by a now furious Canio when the little play threatens to disintegrate. She moves back into character and attempts to retrieve the situation before the confused villagers. The end moves in with swift pace, and Canio's murder of his wife and then of Silvio her lover is shockingly realistic. Tonio, the mind behind the whole tragedy, strides forward and pulls the real theater curtain closed in an angry dust-filled jerk as he exclaims to the real audience that "the comedy is over!"

What a performance! The conception and the stage direction were strong and forceful. The two clowns even continued the play-within-the play concept by continuing their act in the foyer during intermission and the painted intermission curtain was the same as the backdrop for the little stage. The audience and the characters, the villagers and the play, the opera and the little play all respond to each other. Accolades to Michael Scarola.

The singers were excellent and so was the chorus. We might have wished that Canio had been more driven in his stage demeanor, and that Nedda had a bit more delicacy at times, but all in all, the play was riveting, and truly, the comedy ended in true tragedy. But which was it -- professional actors presenting a true event or were those real people acting out a play?

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001