Opera Reviews
1 March 2024
Untitled Document

A rather odd couple

by Arlene Judith Klotzko
Rachmaninoff: Aleko
Leoncavallo: Pagliacci
New York City Opera
September 2016

Some pairings seem so natural, predictable, even taken for granted: bacon and eggs, peanut butter and jelly, tea and toast. I won’t belabor the point with the trivial but, clearly, departures from habitual choices do yield new experiences.  For all of my musical life, Pagliacci has been the tragic-comic operatic appendage to the dark and sombre Cavalleria Rusticana. New York City Opera and Opera Carolina (which premiered this production earlier this year) had a different idea. They presented Rachmaninoff’s Aleko and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, two short operas written in the same year, 1892, both based on plots involving jealousy and murder by dagger. The two works feature transients – gypsies in Aleko and traveling actors in Pagliacci. I found the similarities to be far less interesting and illuminating than the differences. 

Aleko is an early, largely forgotten, albeit precocious effort, a school project, by an acknowledged genius.  Rachmaninoff, then just nineteen years old, went on to produce orchestral works which remain staples of the concert repertoire. Pagliacci is the lone great work of librettist and composer Leoncavallo, who tried so hard to equal it but came up short. Here, shorn of its traditional verismo side-kick and contrasted with Aleko, which is quintessentially Russian with its folk songs, harmonies and deep dark Russian bass voices, Pagliacci seemed to explode with life. It was so vivid, direct, and melodically rich. The melodrama was visceral. And it was redolent of life in southern Italy. Of the two operas in this production, Pagliacci was the more successful because of the quality of the work itself and also the passionate, beautifully sung, convincingly acted Canio of Francesco Anile.

The audience came primed to cheer. Indeed, they applauded as the curtain rose on the dark, rather spartan set of Rachmaninoff’s cheerless Aleko. New York City Opera was back and, although not offering  the full season of years gone by, certainly with more promise than in the more recent past. The season program lists seven staged operas and two concerts.. So if not totally resurrected, the company is certainly reanimated.  Nomads in recent seasons, they are now mostly ensconced in the lovely Rose Theatre, a little jewel tucked into a corner of the Time Warner Building just south of Lincoln Center.

John Farrell’s simple set for the two operas – fittingly for the gypsies of Aleko and the traveling players of Pagliacci – was the no frills budget travel option of a boxcar. Director Lev Pugliese did what he could with the rather static Aleko, but did much better with Pagliacci with its more dynamic, interesting and fast moving action and its fully rounded characters delineated by musical means and eliciting an empathetic response.

The most impressive singer of the night was Francesco Anile, an Italian tenor who became a media sensation last spring when he stepped in for the indisposed Aleksandrs  Antonenko in Otello at the Metropolitan Opera.  He was called upon with a mere five minutes notice to sing the psychologically challenging scene in which Otello strangles Desdemona. Added to the pressure of such an unorthodox Met debut was the fact that the performance was being broadcast to an international radio audience. Anile, dressed in T shirt, jeans and sneakers with a cape thrown over his shoulders, was placed at the side of the stage while, Antonenko mimed the scene and mouthed the words. At his curtain call, the audience gave him a tumultuous reception. He sang one more performance while Antonenko was recovering – this time from the beginning and in costume.

Given all of that, I was keen to hear him and was certainly  not disappointed. He has a beautiful rich, dark tenor with a ringing top and power to spare. His "Vesti la giubba” was superb – eloquently phrased and dynamically shaded, passionate, and dramatically convincing. Jessica Rose Cambio sang Nedda with a sweet agile voice. As a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage, her “Stridono lasu” with its wistful singing about birds in flight, was poignant indeed. Michael Corvino as Tonio was wiry and energetic, very much the character actor. Gustavo Feullien as Silvio personified the Italian heartthrob.  

The chorus, under the direction of William Hobbs, was excellent in both operas but performed very different functions.  In Pagliacci, they were the villagers full of excitement at the arrival of the company of traveling players. In Aleko the huge chorus had a major role as the community of which the main characters were a part and they sang beautifully. 

Aleko began with an overture, featuring lyrical almost ethereal high strings, followed by the fine bass, Kevin Thompson, as the Old Gypsy, telling a tale of betrayal and lost love. And then the story was repeated, mirroring his experience as in the Pagliacci story.  Here, the cuckolded husband, tenor Stefan Szkafarowsky (heard recently as Monterone at the Met), murders his wife Zelmira – the lovely mellow-voiced Inna Dukach, and her lover, the much more youthful tenor, Jason Karn. Szkafarowsky especially was dramatically committed and his scene at the end, alone on stage, regretting the murder, was moving. However, compared with Pagliacci, Aleko did not draw the audience in. The characters were flat and generic;  the still very young composer did not yet have command of musical means to create them. The story by Pushkin, on which the libretto was based, did not work terribly well as the basis for an opera. There was an extended dance sequence, a pas de deux, featuring rather elaborate costumes with choreography by the male dancer, Andrei Kisselev. I found it to be well done yet strangely out of place in the somewhat ragtag world of the itinerant gypsies.

The orchestra under James Meena, General Director and Principal Conductor of Opera Carolina, led fine performances of two operas very different stylistically and idiomatically. With Aleko there were tantalizing glimpses of the mature Rachmaninoff – shimmering strings, marvelous harmonies, haunting melodies. Meena brought out the emotionally expressive power of the music with excellent playing by the low strings and swelling crescendos. Pagliacci was especially well done; the orchestra conveyed the full sweep of the Italian verismo emotional landscape.

Text © Arlene Judith Klotzko
Photos © Sarah Shatz
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