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THE LYRIC LENS: Pagliacci 2021/08 Chicago

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

For the audio component of Lyric Opera of Chicago's Pagliacci film, company music director Enrique Mazzola guides the LOC Chorus and Orchestra in pursuit of verismo chic. Bombast is shunned in favor of elegance: how often does one hear the opening chorus's piano markings so rigorously observed, or the classicism of the commedia dell'arte so clearly delineated? Care has obviously been taken to ensure that this interpretation be the farthest cry from a rough-&-ready repertory performance.

Detailed listening however proves that care to be inconsistently applied. The production's textual decisions are curious: in the opening chorus the traditional transposition-&-cut (23 bars) early on in the piece is not taken but the traditional cut (20 bars) further on is; the second act opening chorus is note-complete, including Nedda and Silvio's pre-show exchanges, but in their actual duet the standard 46-bar cut is made—why?

This production's interpretative care leaves most impact upon the quartetto tragico of principals.

I «cattivoni»: Bravi Russell Thomas and Quinn Kelsey. These gentlemen are serious artists. Disciplined vocally, musically, and theatrically, they do not overplay—Kelsey's «La commedia è finita!» is a sly understatement—and they take in stride the range demands of their respective roles—Thomas confident up to the B-natural of «a ventitré ore!», Kelsey spanning from the prologo high A-flat to the commedia's optional low D «Là veglio su voi!». Conscientious in their Italian, neither artist escapes the occasional slip of the tongue: right before his climactic «Ridi, Pagliaccio», Thomas «in una smorfia il singhioccio [singhiozzo]»; Kelsey inconsistent in his pronunciation of /u/, a vowel contemporary American baritones find elusive—in the prologo «Vedrete dell'odio i tristi frœutti [frutti]» and in the second act opening number «Pigliate presto! sœu! [su!]»

Both resist the temptation to portray the self-pitying villains of operatic stereotype, instead manifesting their characters' vulnerability. Refreshing as it is to witness artists exploring Canio and Tonio's humanity, their ultimate violence now seems out of context because the interpreters have soft-pedaled the characters' latent brutality.

Das Liebespaar: As Nedda Ailyn Pérez is the most textually specific of the cast, individually responsive to all the men in her life. Her vocalism is scuola di Scotto, evoking la Renata's inflections in ways positive (skillful dipping in and out of the bottom reaches), negative (glottal attacks), piquant (closing vowels in the middle and lower registers), and uncanny (similar rate of vibrato in the middle-through-post-passaggio octave A-to-A).

Lucas Meachem introduces himself in confidential head-dominant tones («Nedda!… Ah bah!»), eventually opening up but returning to that «headspace» throughout the duet. In «Tutto scordiam!» he follows Nedda all the way to an interpolated high A-natural mezzavoce, a hypothetically clever idea that proves equivocal when realized because Meachem's upper-register mezzevoci owe less to Leoncavallo than to Lloyd Webber, hearkening back to Michael Crawford in the original cast album of Phantom of the Opera.

Meachem is also not exempt from the contemporary American baritone difficulty with the /u/ vowel: «se l'immenso amor tœuo [tuo] œuna [una] fola non è».

Complimenti to Eric Ferring for a Beppe/Arlecchin fresh of voice and bright of spirits.

(For tenor fanatics, here is the serenata as a debonair star turn of the inimitable Ivan Kozlovsky.)

The film's visuals evoke familiar American pop culture contexts: the prologo / music video, the troupe's meet-&-greet / talk show, the first act starting from the ballatella / daytime drama, the commedia / vintage sitcoms (filmed in black-&-white), Pérez reacting to Tonio/Taddeo's presence with I Love Lucy's humorously inconvenienced «Eugh!»

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