The Power of Pagliacci

Richard Leech as Canio

Richard Leech as Canio; photo courtesy Sam Garcia

Opera Lyra Ottawa’s recent production of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci (or Cav/Pag) this past September demonstrated once again just how powerful the draw of great opera can be. This was the first time in the company’s twenty seven year history that these great operas have been produced. There are numerous challenges associated with casting these shows, mainly due to the vocal demands of Cav and the acting abilities required of the singers for Pag. It was fascinating listening to the audience’s comments following the performances with some preferring Cav and others enjoying Pag. Although the two operas (written within a couple years of each other) are both fine examples of the Verismo period of opera, they in fact differ in style significantly therefore creating a terrific evening, hence the popularity of this pairing.

When I describe Cav to first-time opera goers, I refer to it as being a singer’s opera. The music is gorgeous, with long sweeping lines and haunting melodies. Indeed the famous instrumental intermezzo has been used for numerous movie soundtracks and spaghetti commercials! Dramatically it could be argued that this opera lacks the intricacies associated with Pag but what makes this opera fabulous is great singing. I can see how the show could be tedious without great singers (in fact, I admit I have sat through one or two of those tedious performances myself over the years)! Opera Lyra’s production was in my mind an amazing cast of singers. Each one portrayed their role to perfection and were highly skilled singers, to the point where even the most jaded audience member could not help but be swept away by their powerful performances. It’s the music and the great singing that brings the drama to the forefront. I recall exclaiming to some associates after the opening night “Now that’s opera”!

Ty, Gaétan Laperrière

Pag is in many ways a completely different experience. There’s no doubt the singing must also be topnotch but in this opera, the drama is more readily discovered, is more obvious. The story is complex, interesting and captivating. Everyone knows the iconic clown who must put on his costume and perform though his heart is breaking. This image has been exploited in the media to its fullest with some extremely effective commercials such as Kellogg’s and Coke and of course Pagliacci has made appearances on television shows such as Seinfeld and even The Simpsons! The music in this opera is  effective with memorable tunes, full of nuance and detail. The “Commedia” scene in particular is complex and challenging which cannot be played strictly as written on the page but rather it must be brought to life through bold and passionate interpretation. In addition to the main stage performances, Opera Lyra presented a special performance of this opera for school children. The kids absolutely loved it. In fact, I heard someone describe the experience as being “magical” and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

It’s fascinating how certain operas tend to go in cycles within opera companies. Through no intentional planning whatsoever, several opera companies often end up presenting the same operas within a short period. Currently I am in Edmonton conducting Cav/Pag, Arizona Opera is presenting it this month, Calgary is performing a  different pairing of Schicchi/Pag this month, and recently Montreal presented these operas  as well. It’s wonderful to see the power of Pagliacci still casts a spell over the audience well over one hundred years after its creation.

-Ty Paterson, Artistic Director

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