Arts opera review

Boston Lyric Opera tries its hand at ‘bread and circuses’

Leoncavallo’s ‘Pagliacci’ served with a new appetizer

9155 blo pag 3 photo by liza voll   lior hirschfeld
Nedda (Lauren Michelle) confides to her lover Silvio (Tobias Greenhalgh) in 'Pagliacci.'
Liza Voll Photography

Music and Libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo
English translation by Bill Bankes-Jones
Boston Lyric Opera
Sept. 27–Oct. 6

Boston Lyric Opera opens the season with an experimental take on Pagliacci, a play-within-a-play centered on a love triangle between members of a commedia dell’arte troupe. The advertised “immersion” takes place in Act 1, where audience members are invited into the Fairgrounds. There, they can play carnival games, watch acrobats and jugglers, listen to the MIT Cambridge Chinese Choral Society, and eat the food they have purchased at the affiliated food trucks. Act 2 is the opera itself, which features cameos by some of the circus performers from Act 1. 

Artistic Director Esther Nelson proclaims that “you become more than a spectator; you are a participant.” I don’t agree. I was still in the comfortable, complacent position of spectator: my life and love were not held in the balance nor did I have to please people with my dulcet tones or comedic timing. The initial priming of the Fairgrounds setting did, however, make the theatrical world more immediate and the dramatic atmosphere more tangible. You did not have to gain your bearings as the orchestra struck up the overture under the circus tent; Tonio’s prologue seemed like a perfectly logical extension of the series of events.

The main event of the evening — the opera itself — did not disappoint. Leoncavallo’s melodic score, sometimes evocatively melancholy, sometimes rousingly happy, was skillfully executed by the BLO Orchestra in spite of the poor acoustics provided by the DCR Steriti Memorial Rink where the production was staged. In this production, Leoncavallo’s original Italian libretto was translated into English, with the exception of the love duet. The translation itself was fine, but both the music and some of the singer’s voices would have been better augmented by the mellifluous romance language. Was this artistic choice another attempt to appeal to a broader audience by reducing the perceived language barrier? Sylvio (sung by Tobias Greenhalgh) allowed for ready comparison between the two as he sang both in English and Italian. His voice blossomed into more full-bodied, vibrant tones in Italian, and he seemed more at ease and more confident in his role as Nedda’s lover. Rafael Rojas’s performance as Nedda’s jealous husband/Pagliaccio also suggested that his talents would have been more clearly highlighted by the original libretto. 

As Nedda, Lauren Michelle was radiant and expressive in both languages. Her ringing voice projected in the unusual venue. She was an excellent actress: full of girlish charm, coquettish with a cruel streak. That streak is partly what sets off Tonio (Michael Mayes), precipitating the ensuing drama. Mayes is a powerful singer and actor. As the vindictive, violent Tonio, he does not evoke sympathy, but his voice is very much another matter: a dynamic baritone which scales the range of emotions from amorous tenderness to murderous rage. One of the most pleasant surprises was the singing of the Pagliacci chorus, which inhabited the aisles and played the role of the audience of the play-within-a-play. It was not carnival games, but hearing the vibrato two feet away, that made for a truly immersive experience.

Being a short opera (only 80 minutes), Pagliacci is traditionally staged with another short opera like Cavalleria rusticana. After the dramatic conclusion of Pagliacci, it might have been difficult to pivot in the space of an intermission and be completely receptive to watching another human drama unfold and settling into the pace of another composer’s work. Yet, if the option were between seeing two short operas or having the format presented by the BLO, I think I would still prefer the former.

It was interesting to see a new approach to staging Pagliacci, and while the BLO’s idea for “Act 1” is a creative one, the execution could have been better. Part of its mission is to make opera a more intimate and less esoteric art form. However, suturing a completely different form of entertainment onto the body of the opera did not enhance the experience for me. While one may enjoy both dishes on their own, combining them on one plate can be off-putting. As it stands, BLO delivers a wonderful Pagliacci with a festive preamble that makes up in spirit what it lacks in substance.