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Operas too short to fill a whole evening are usually paired in performance with similar short works; the most famous of these shotgun weddings is the one that pairs Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana with Ruggiero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, an opera from the same period and in a similar vein.
But this last weekend the Capital Opera Raleigh tried a different wedding: the grim and bloody I Pagliacci with The Impresario, Mozart's ageless comedy about the trials and tribulations of an opera company manager – and it worked. Mozart's farce about two sopranos and a tenor cat-fighting for roles in an upcoming production, with the libretto updated to reflect contemporary conditions, opened the evening, setting up the other, more deadly triangle.
Although double casting gives performance opportunities to more singers, it often means that only one of the casts gets reviewed. We attended the Friday performance; Saturday's had a partially different cast for both works.
Joel Adams, the director for The Impresario, took the role of the narrator and the Manager, Herr Frank, who could have used some lessons from Rudolph Bing. Adams's serious delivery clashed wonderfully with the absurd text. Soprano Jeanine Wagner, as the self-important and demanding Madame Herz, has a big but – perhaps deliberately – not very accurate voice. Her dress, draped with an enormous neon-pink feather boa, constantly on the move, made you wonder when she would reveal too much. Soprano Rebecca Myers, as the flirtatious Mlle. Silberklang, has a beautiful, clear voice; but neither soprano's diction was very clear. By contrast, as Monsieur Vogelsang, tenor Kevin Badanes, who is actually a choral conductor, not a singer, had outstanding diction. His passable but certainly not professional voice may have been a deliberate choice to enhance the comedy. All in all, it was a production with lots of laughs and updated humor, including a swat at the critics of the N&O and CVNC.
I Pagliacci is another theatre story, although at the extreme low end of the profession. This tale of jealousy and murder among the members of a troupe of traveling players in poverty-worn Calabria was, unfortunately, not one of Capital Opera's better undertakings. The production, staged by Wayne Wyman, suffered both from an uneven cast and sometimes chaotic, sometimes static staging. The best voice by far was tenor William McCulloch as Canio, il Pagliaccio, who acted and sang the hyper-emotional role convincingly with resonance and good diction. Tenor Jeffery Maggs in the smaller role of Beppe also put in a creditable performance. Baritone Brian Watson started well in the prologue, a recitative which gives, in a nutshell, the general idea behind verismo opera; but he did less well as the hunchback Tonio, whose jealous machinations bring down the tragedy. Watson's voice is on the ragged side and his initial lovemaking and subsequent hatred were not very convincing.
Weakest by far was the performance of soprano Karine Eva Darrah as Nedda, Canio's flighty wife. Her intonation was uncertain and her small voice could not carry even in modest-sized Jones Auditorium. Baritone Krassen Karagiozov sang the role of Nedda's not-so-secret lover Silvio with good voice and convincing acting during his duet with Nedda but showed a surprising boredom and detachment while sitting among the peasants and watching Nedda's acting in the play.
In I Pagliacci the chorus has very difficult music with sudden changes in tempo and meter. Unfortunately, the chaotic staging had them aimlessly milling about, miming interactions with each other or skipping around to such a degree that they seemed impervious to conductor Alfred Sturgis's beat. They dropped notes and entire bars of music and were pretty much out of out of synch until they could all meet and regroup at the "big melodies."
The orchestra was also uneven. The winds and brass were just fine but too few fiddles sounded like one violin plus one violin plus one violin... rather than a cohesive and on-pitch section. On the other hand, Sturgis was able to moderate the dynamics so as not to overpower most of the singers.
The set and costumes for I Pagliacci were appropriately simple: a traveling stage on wheels and a few benches for the stage audience in modest and timeless peasant dress.
As Joel Adams, in his role as Herr Frank, honestly declared, Capital is not the Opera Company of North Carolina. Rather, Capital Opera has to some degree filled the void left by the National Opera Company before it morphed into a first-rate training vehicle for singers with a real future. Nevertheless, there are now in this area enough fine singers to populate Capital's forces, and the company has certainly upgraded its pit. Now it needs to work on staging and acting to complete the package as a viable grass roots opera company.