Leoncavallo never attained anything else remotely approaching the success of “Pagliacci”, though he wrote a dozen of other operas and operettas. “Pagliacci” is normally plaid in a double bill with Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, as they are both short and kindred in spirit. Artistically, the combination represents the apex of the Italian “veristic” movement; commercially the double bill constitutes a salable “ham and eggs” staple for many an opera house. The “Pagliacci”’s Prologue is considered the very “manifesto” of “verismo” aesthetics It is known that Mascagni never appreciated the idea of the double bill. Zeffirelli broadly agrees with him. Albeit he has staged “Cav” and “Pag” in several theatres , including the “Met”, and also directed a movie with the two operas, most recently he has produced different versions of “Pagliacci” either alone or with a ballet (to fill the evening; “Pagliacci” lasts 70 minutes). In the 1980s, for instance, in a La Scala production, Zeffirelli placed the plot during Italian fascism and completed the performance with the Nino Rota ballet “La Strada” (after Federico Fellini’s movie). In the 1990s, in Rome “Pag” was a stand-alone show; the plot was placed under a highway bridge or by-pass in Southern Italy. In this new production, “Pagliacci” is a blighted Neapolitan suburbs where motorbikes (“lambrettas”, but also high speed Japanese motos) cross the stage, prostitutes of all races sell their ware, drug pushers are in the crowd of nearly 200 (double chorus, children chorus, extras).
The show is grand and also elegant and with Zeffirelli’s usual care for details. There is a special feature in the staging : the first act is quasi-neorealistic (inspired by Rossellini and De Sica movies of the 1940s); the second act is fellinian (viz in an atmosphere of Fellini’s movies). A real touch of genius which shows how Leoncavallo, although assertive “verista”, was approaching visionary expressionistic lands.
There a very close entente with the musical director Gianluigi Gelmetti whose wand demonstrate how brilliant is the score (in spite of what some reviewers starte); the use of motif’s point to Wagner’s influence (also present in the Canio’s role), the melodies are subtle and well-judged, the orchestra is used with elegance and the choruses (in Rome under the guidance of Andrea Giorgi) well-polished. The Prologue is a real stroke of genius. Gelmetti underscored the rhythmic élan of the main theme whilst Zeffirelli had the curtain abruptly torn aside to carry the audience into the kaleidoscopic world of the strolling players. The perfect “unison” between director and conductor adds value to the agonizing sorrow when Canio (Stuart Neill) takes on the second main them , his desperate “Ridi, Pagliacci”. Finally, the Colombin play is performed as it should be : a self-contained musical jewel with dance-like style including Nedda-Colombina (Myrtà Papatanasiu) minuet, Taddeo (Seng-Yyun Ko) light hearted waltz tune and duet where the comic parody has as undertone the dramatic thematic accompanied from the same scene in the first act and the underlying seriousness is clearly suggested.
The orchestra responded very well to the challenge of giving a demonstration that “Pagliacci” is not a second class score for cheap summer performances by travelling companies moving from resort to resort but a XX century masterpiece. Stuart Neill is big generous American tenor with the voice to fill the huge Teatro dell’Opera; his timbre is very clear and his acting better suited to Canio than to La Scala recent “Don Carlo” Myrtà Papatanasiu is a good soprano with a very nice voice emission but lacks the volume required by the Teatro dell’Opera. Effectuive Seng-Yyun Ko and the other.
The audience was thrilled as shown by the many curtain calls