Nuovo delitto: Pagliacci 2021/09/23 New Camerata Opera (Brooklyn)
A gutsy young NYC opera company defies obstacles to stage a Cav+Pag pasticcio
By reasonable deduction, the odds were stacked against New Camerata Opera in their return to in-person staged production—a curious 90-minute «mash-up» of verismo's most celebrated double bill staged mise-en-espace style with the singers close to the audience but yards away from the conductor and reduced orchestra in the acoustically odd setting of a Bushwick warehouse on a meteorologically wretched evening. And yet reason be damned: this Cav+Pag pasticcio crafted by director John de los Santos, conductor Samuel McCoy, and dramaturg Cori Ellison was sold to an enthusiastic audience thanks to the cast-&-chorus's palpable esprit de corps. All of the stage performers sang and gestured with energy, shirking nothing, «camping» nothing, and without the advantage of a proper operatic space that could offer them the visually and aurally enhancing distance beneficial to operatic performance.
In order of vocal appearance, listing the characters, the performers, and comments on their work:
• Tonio/Taddeo—his venom toned down in this adaptation (the scontro with Nedda is cut):
Stan Lacy, his timbre akin to a Spielbariton-with-an-attitude, personifying upbeat sleaziness.
• Turiddu—his brindisi reduced to an arietta and deprived of his addio alla madre:
Steven Wallace, lusty-toned in this demanding tessitura, nonchalantly confident in face of all the character's tense encounters.
• Santuzza—whose theatrical responsibilities now include an awkward stage-floor crossing-of-paths with Canio from whom she recoils in horror and the curtain line «La commedia è finita!»:
Megan Nielson, wide-eyed, unflinching scenically and vocally (tossing in the seldom-heard interpolated cadential top C at the end of her duet with Alfio). Her timbre is appealingly mournful; one might crave a more generous range of phrasing and textual inflections for this volatile character. Nielson would also be well-advised not to physically characterize her forte top tones as cries of anger—this reviewer found it an unappealing dramatization of those extreme operatic sounds usually anticipated with pleasure.
• As Mamma Lucia, Leslie Middlebrook vocally and dramatically embodied the weathered matriarch.
• Canio/Pagliaccio, in Erik Bagger's interpretation far from the self-pitying cattivone of stereotype. Manful vulnerability seems Bagger's strong suit: a plangent timbre with a built-in sob, and a characterization emphasizing that Canio's rage is born of pain. (At such close range one noticed Pagliaccio's eyes wide and focused upon Colombina throughout much of their commedia.) One encourages Bagger to further intensify his performance as he grows in the role.
• Beppe/Arlecchino a sly heartbreaker in Rashard Deleston's physically nimble performance, his clear-ringing timbre and enthusiastic inflections in the serenata highlighting the fact that it is a mating call: how could Colombina resist?
• Nedda/Colombina is a tricky role, theatrically multi-faceted, vocally all over the map, and sometimes portrayed unsympathetically. Samina Aslam met her character's theatrical challenges with aplomb, sparking real chemistry with Silvio, playing Colombina with wicked relish—whipping out a spray gun on Canio at «Pagliaccio! Pagliaccio!»—and eliciting horror in her murder, especially harrowing with Aslam's screams and physical reactions at such close quarters. All this executed with great vocal appeal: Aslam fleshed out Nedda's rangey phrases (including the 46 bars traditionally cut within the duet with Silvio) with passionately feminine tone. Her voice is a haunting one, sultry-toned in the middle-through-low and electric in the top reaches—her high A corona on «Oh! che bel sole» was a moment of belcanto pleasure. (Why did conductor McCoy's impatience deny her the traditional corona of «della morte»?) One is curious to hear this artist in further branches of the Italian repertoire.
• Silvio here a superb match for his Nedda in the person of Angky Budiardjono. This heartfelt artist filled his phrases with glamourous tone all the way to high A-natural (echoing Nedda in «Tutto scordiam!»), in voice and gesture the embodiment of tender passion.
• This production features a deliciously cattiva Lola. Steamy-toned and hawk-eyed—one got the impression that she never blinked—Eva Parr delighted in baiting both Turiddu and Santuzza. In her interpretation the stornello was, clearly as seldom ever, a mating call (despite conductor McCoy's habitual impatience, misunderstanding the piece for a scherzo).
• Costa Tsourakis gave Compar Alfio the air of a quietly sinister capo, to his credit never overplayed.
Praise for the cast-&-chorus must be amplified in light of the fact that throughout the entire performance most of their needs went unheeded by Samuel McCoy at the podium. He seemed to conduct his own «track»: a slick reading of these scores (neither of which benefits from slickness) which kept edging the show forward at the expense of his singers' cumulative stress. Spending so much of the evening face down in the score, McCoy frequently ignored the singers, never breathing with them, never giving preemptive cues ahead of vocal entrances. (Gesturing and mouthing along with the music as it is happening is not cueing.) Ensemble suffered most drastically in the Pagliacci opening chorus, here performed without the traditional cuts, the orchestra and chorus meeting up finally at «Viva Pagliaccio!» sixty-eight bars in.
Of tempo variations McCoy demonstrated three: «immediately move forward», «immediately slow down», and «stop the beat pattern for this fermata», thus causing the beat to halt and then requiring extra time to get back into the beat pattern. The capacity to gesturally communicate those subtle touches of rubato which give life within phrases is not his to command.
The question is raised how much interest, much less awareness, McCoy had in the singers' vocal lines, pitches, rhythms, words, breaths, and all.
NCO will also be presenting the production with an alternate cast in which Lola will be sung by Julia Tang, Turiddu and Canio respectively by Chris Carr and Victor Khodadad, Nedda and Santuzza respectively by Maria Brea—Olga in Teatro Grattacielo's Fedora last year—and Indira Mahajan in her role debut. In bocca al lupo tutto quanti!