Utah Opera Offers a Rollercoaster of Tragedy and Comedy (and an opportunity to be a little rebellious)

By Gray Thomas

For only a few remaining evenings, Utah Opera presents a double feature rollercoaster of tragedy and comedy that will leave audiences dazzled. Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo and Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini  have been joined together by director Tara Faircloth as gleaming examples of Verismo Opera, or, as Michael Clive explains in the playbill, realistic opera. This production features clear, crisp voices of Scott Piper (Canio in Pagliacci), Utah native Marina Costa-Jackson (making her Utah Opera debut as Nedda/Lauretta in Pagliacci and Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi), Wayne Tigges (making his Utah Opera debut as Tonio in Pagliacci and Gianni Schicchi in Gianni Schicchi) and various other singers whose voices are alluring and commanding, drawing the audience in with vocal subtlety and emoting extravagantly when necessary. Audiences should expect a premiere experience, especially within the lavish Capitol theatre whose Renaissance-style architecture stands in bold traditional style opposing the contemporary Eccles Theatre only a block away. The opera is backed by the Utah Symphony, which performs flawlessly. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that this was an incredible experience.

Pagliacci is a brutal short opera. The audience is introduced to the stereotypical sad clown, who must smile even though he is sad, make comedy when he is devastated, and entertain when he is torn apart inside, as is explained in the timeless aria “Vesti la giubba” or “put on the costume.” For this sad clown (Piper), he has discovered the infidelity of his partner who is also his onstage companion. He chases off the clandestine lover, only to endure the humility of dressing up in his clown costume for his performance alongside the unfaithful wife. Onstage, the cuckolding is reenacted in a remarkably similar story, though this time Pagliacci is determined to seek revenge on his wife and her lover by murdering them in full view of the audience. This tirade of masculinity only further crushes Pagliacci.

Gianni Schicchi is a one-act operatic comedy that follows the tragedy of Pagliacci. Much less somber, this opera opens to a wealthy patriarch dramatically passing away on his deathbed surrounded by his family. The family feigns sorrow, but it is clear their interests lie only in the contents of the will of the patriarch. When they discover that the fortune has been left to humble friars, the family begins to weep real tears, and sets about to change the will to their benefit somehow.

Aside from the performances, I can only imagine the challenges for the lighting design (Matthew Antaky), set design (Laura Fine Hawkes), and costume design (Verona Green for Pagliacci, Susan Memmott Allred for Gianni Schicchi). All three have to work to create two unique sets and costumes for two entirely different operas. Pagliacci takes place outdoors in a city square among the common people while Gianni Schicchi takes place indoors, in wealthy penthouse among aristocrats. Therefore, all the elements have to reflect these changes in socio-economic status. The costumes reflect the time periods of the release of each perspective operas, with a noticeable change from shoddy peasant clothing to fine aristocratic finery. The set uses perspective lines in the tiling to create vanishing points. This generates an optical illusion of being larger than it actually is, giving the notion that the street or the penthouse continues beyond what we can actually see. The illusion of the stage extension reflects the prologue in which Tonio (Wayne Tigges) beckons the audience to consider that the actors continue to live their lives beyond the stage, and while the story that we see is fiction, they are rooted in real life.

According to the notes in the playbill (of which there are copious amounts), Paul Drogon describes how shorter operas are often joined with various other shorter operas, often by other composers, not unlike a showing of short films. Joining these two specific operas together is a spectacular choice, as they both display the potential of what the art form is able to achieve, capturing the heights of irony, tragedy, and comedy. In Pagliacci, we have an opera that finds tragedy despite our expectations for comedy. In Gianni Schicchi, we have roaring comedy in a tragic situation. The pairing of the two creates an incredible and unexpected balance.

While I could continue to go on about the elements of this production, I must admit that I don’t have much experience in opera. I can’t comment on the minutiae of the voices and or the intricacy of the symphony. Indeed, this is perhaps the third opera I’ve ever seen. I grew up on a healthy diet of punk rock and grunge at basement shows and dingy venues to join in the violent mosh pits or the awkward limb thrusts of the skank circle. While my musical tastes have evolved, I never thought I would be the type to settle into the velvet-lined seats of Capitol Theatre for an evening of music by professional singers who have trained their entire lives to have voices that are able to ring out with clarity and intention. Most of the voices at the punk shows I’ve been to have an entirely different intention. So what business do I have in reviewing an opera?

Now more than ever, attendance and support of the arts has never been more important. Arts of all genres can create a deeper understanding and connection to humanity. They can inform audiences of various perspectives. They can enhance our lives. They can supplement our comprehension of reality. We currently live in a political climate of increasingly narrow perspectives, as political parties become increasingly polarized. Unfortunately, the dominant political perspective has grown hostile toward the arts as evidenced by the proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts. The continuation of the arts in the face of a political environment that is adverse to the arts is an act of wonderful defiance.

When these operas were composed, Pagliacci in 1890 and Gianni Schicchi in 1918, Leoncavallo and Puccini were engaged in a new style of opera known as “Verismo.” This style was meant to create an opera that was more “real.” Opera before this time period centered around gods and myths. These operas served to tell the stories of common people. Many opera connoisseurs of the time believed that this new form of opera was fit for the gutters. While today, these operas may feel a bit antiquated, it is important to remember that, in a way, this style of opera was considered “punk rock.”

For individuals such as myself, the notion of going to an opera can be daunting. Indeed, when you enter the chandelier-lined hall with the elaborate carpeting and gold flourishes, this can be an intimidating environment for a former punk/indie kid. I would be remiss not to recognize the class separation of opera audiences and punk rock audiences. Perhaps we can chalk this up to the lack of exposure to the genre or the seemingly high prices of such an experience. Fortunately, Utah Opera offers educations opportunities to expose young audiences to opera, and offer tickets for as low as $15 (which is cheaper than any Green Day ticket). These efforts make the experience affordable and accessible.

While the opera may not have the same vibe as a punk show, there remains a similar kind of rebellion. Not only was this style of opera considered non-conforming at the time of their conception, but the act of enjoying and appreciating fine arts today is becoming more revolutionary. This should be reason enough for anyone who harbors the non-conformist spirit to attend. I’m certainly thrilled that I was able to exercise my own rebellious spirit by attending Utah Opera’s Pagliacci/Gianni Schicchi, and I encourage anyone else with this urge to do so as well. I will certainly be back.

Utah Opera presents Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo/Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo PucciniItalian libretto by Giovacchino Forzano
Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City, Utah 84101
March 10, 12, 14, 16 18 7:30 PM
Tickets: $15-105
Contact: 801-533-6683
Utah Opera Facebook Page
Pagliacci/Gianni Schicchi Facebook Event

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