Greensboro Opera chose one half of the two most famous verismo twins to open its 2019-20 season. Major opera houses, such as the Metropolitan Opera, often pair the GOC’s selection Pagliacci by Ruggerio Leoncavallo (1858-1919) with Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945). They are the repertoire survivors of the late nineteenth century Italian verismo – naturalistic, low life plots. The production is sung in Italian with well-timed supertitles in English. This performance is repeated by a matinee November 17 in the UNCG Auditorium on the University of North Carolina Greensboro campus.

The cast featured baritone David Pershall as Silvio, baritone Richard Zeller as Tonio, soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda, tenor Brandon Scott Russell as Canio, and tenor Joel Sorensen as Beppe. The stage director was David Holley. The chorus was prepared by Jim Bumgardner and the orchestra was conducted by Steven White.

The gritty real-life plot centers upon the arrival of a traveling comedia d’arte troop in a village for an evening performance. The stars are Canio as the clown Pagliaccio, his wife Nedda, with Tonio as the clown Taddeo, and Peppe as the stock trouble-maker Arlecchino. Canio is justly jealous of Nedda who plans to elope with her lover Silvio, a villager. She rejects the cripple Tonio’s advances so he reveals the lovers’ plot to Canio. During the play about a cheating wife, Canio abandons his character and murders both lovers on stage thus ending the “comedy.”

That this was going to be a performance not to be missed was evident from the first notes from the orchestra in the instrumental introduction. White secured a wonderful chamber music like transparency from the players with refined control of color and dynamics. Principal players turned in deeply expressive, refined solos. This was high standard was maintained throughout, including the poignant Intermezzo that opened Act II, to the tragic end.

The vocal bar was set high immediately when baritone Zeller, who sings the crippled Tonio in the opera, stepped from behind the curtain to sing the Prologue. What clear diction! What a smooth even and rich voice!

Director Holley blocked all his vocal forces for the most dramatic effect. This was true for both the adult chorus and the very lively children’s chorus (drawn from the Burlington Boys Choir and prepared by Bill Allred). Both choruses sang with remarkable clear diction. Conductor White coordinated superbly between the pit and stage.

Tenor Russell dominated the stage as the jealous Canio, the leader of the troop of players. His lower range has a baritone-like weight while his voice is evenly supported to firmly focused highs. His aria “Un tal gioco, credetermi” (Such a game) was menacingly sung, conveying his barely contained fury while “Vesti la giubba” plumbed the depth of his grief. His diction was excellent.

Soprano Kantorski was magnificent as Nedda, Canio’s unfaithful wife. Her powerful, warm voice was evenly supported across its range soaring to beautifully focused highs. Every word was clear. Her aria “Oh! Che volo d’augelli” (Ah, you beautiful song birds) gave her scope to portray Nedda’s longing to escape. Her love duet with Silvio seethed with passion.

Baritone Pershall sang with balanced, warm tone and no lack of power as Nedda’s secret lover Silvio. He matched Kantorski’s searing passion in their duet. Tenor Sorensen was a solid character actor as Beppe. His fine voice was heard best as he sang the role of Harlequin in the play within the play. The staging of this final scene was especially imaginative and successful. Christian Blackburn and Sean Toso had small parts as villagers.

The effective unit scenery was designed by David P. Gordon for the Sarasota Opera. Center Line Studios, Cornwall, N.Y., constructed and painted the scenery. The lovely Scenic Backdrop was painted by Michael Hagen, Inc. of South Glens Falls. N. Y. These were very effectively lighted by lighting designer/technical director Jeff Neubauer.

This opera repeats Sunday, November 17. See the sidebar for details.