|Cooper Nolan as Canio. All photos by Pat Kirk.|
November 17, 2018
Stage director Chuck Hudson and a strongly theatrical cast have come up with a Pagliacci for the ages, downright Hitchcockian in its ability to deliver the layers of tension in Leoncavallo’s work. It’s a stunning, suspenseful night at the opera.
To deliver strong effects, of course, you need strong weapons, and this is evident from the start with baritone Anthony Clark Evans’ Prologue. This Prologue is a peculiar piece in opera, a musical highlight, often performed at recitals, that arrives before the “real” story has even begun. Evans alternates between affable and ominous in his monodrama of actors and their hidden identities, and his intense presence plays well into the sometimes-overlooked subplot of Tonio, the hunchback whose spurning at the hands of Nedda turns him into an Iago-like schemer.
The more direct threat, of course, is Canio, the clown (Paglioccio) of the troupe. Tenor Cooper Nolan succeeds in conveying a delicious darkness. He reminds me of that acquaintance who turns out to be a bad drunk, cracking jokes one second, seemingly ready to punch you the next. This first appears in “Un tal gioco,” Canio’s explicit announcement of how he will deal with anyone who makes a play for Nedda, his beautiful wife. Nolan delivers these threats with a forceful lirico spinto, and engages in bit of spousal arm-twisting that almost hurts to watch.
|Anthony Clark Evans as Tonio, Maria Natale as Nedda.|
Nolan delivers the iconic “Vesti la giubba” in a strikingly subdued fashion, aided by the chiaroscuro effects of Kent Dorsey’s lighting (a single overhead spot). The result is an invitation to feel sorry for Canio, a man who has painted himself into a corner and can’t seem to find a peaceful way out. Nolan finishes the piece quaking with emotion, giving the finish a suitably edgy quality.
I have never before noticed just how beautifully Act 2 is set up. Having given each player full knowledge of the situation (except for the identity of Nedda’s lover) and forcing them into the necessity of giving a performance, Leoncavallo sets up a thick tension, each player going through stage prep like they’re walking through a minefield.
|Maria Natale as Nedda, Mason Gates as Beppe.|
|Maria Natale as Nedda, Emmett O'Hanlon as Silvio.|
Through Dec. 2, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. 408/437-4450, www.operasj.org.
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, including Gabriella’s Voice and The Girl in the Flaming Dress.