Although the original story may have been French, the libretto as acted out in Scottsdale was as hot as the Calabrian sun.
Felix Mendelssohn visited Italy on a tour of the continent that lasted from 1829 to 1831 At that time he wrote, “This is Italy! ... and I am loving it.” Later, he wrote his sister Fanny saying, “The Italian symphony is making great progress. It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement.”
Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings, Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4, the Italian, has four movements. The opening A Major Allegro Vivace is light, airy and joyful, but it leads into a Bach-like D Minor second movement that reminded me that it was Mendelssohn who had done so much to revive interest in the music of Johan Sebastian Bach. Listening to Robert Moody and the Arizona Musicfest Orchestra play that second movement could bring tears to the coldest eyes. The following Con Moto Moderato is again in A Major but the final movement, marked Presto, is in A Minor and it gives the conductor license to drive his orchestra as fast as possible. With an excellent orchestra containing the first chairs of many other orchestras, Maestro Moody played it Prestissimo and it brought down the house.
Since the Musicfest Orchestra took up most of the stage area, there was only a narrow platform at the back for Stage Director Michael Scarola and his Pagliacci cast to use in staging the opera's action. Composer and librettist Ruggiero Leoncavallo said his story of raw sexuality was based on a case that his father, a judge, handled when the composer was a child. Although that is possible, French author Catulle Mendès thought it resembled his 1887 play La Femme de Tabarin. The French author sued Leoncavallo, only to drop the charges when he, himself, was sued for copying a Spanish play.
The dramatic strength that Scarola drew from his Pagliacci cast was absolutely amazing. He gave us a sizzling rendition of the libretto, pointing out every bit of foreshadowing built into the plot. Although the original story may have been French, the libretto as acted out in Scottsdale was as hot as the Calabrian sun. Although no costumer was credited, the cast wore clothing from the second half of the twentieth century.
Arizona Musicfest’s choristers were raucous townspeople with children who loved being part of the show. Conductor Robert Moody maintained tight control of his players and never let them drown out a singer while he moved the dramatic aspect of the work forward without a nanosecond’s pause. This performance was a thriller.
Gordon Hawkins was a voluminous voiced Tonio who sang the prologue from the middle of the audience. It worked well in that rotund church and he sang “Incominciate” on his way to the stage. Tonio is often played as a hunchback but here he was good-looking bully.
Canio, played by tenor Carl Tanner, was a suave circus owner whose hair trigger temper quickly turned to violence. He considered Nedda his property and he did not intend to share her with anyone. Singing with a huge enveloping voice, he told us the story of the unhappy clown with resonant dramatic tones that flowed like waves over the audience. Jonathan Blalock sang Beppe, Canio’s drinking partner, with easy lyric tenor tones.
Nedda knows she is tied to Canio for life even though she is unhappy as his wife. At the beginning of the opera she reclines on a trunk looking up at the sky and envying the freedom of the birds. Elisabeth Caballero allowed us to be part of Nedda’s dream world as the birds she loved flew into the ether. Her golden middle tones and opulent high notes bloomed above the audience as she sang her lyrical aria. She made listeners sympathize with Nedda but she did not let her her situation control her.
Smooth voiced baritone Alexy Lavrov played Nedda's lover, Silvio, a stable young man with a job in the town. The fact that he was not a member of the touring circus attracted Canio' wife, but she knew she and Silvio could never settle down safely in a town where Canio could find them. Her marriage vows would be not only her death sentence, but his as well. This was one of the most thrilling renditions of Pagliacci I have ever seen.
Cast and production information:
Robert Moody, Conductor; Carl Tanner, Canio; Elizabeth Caballero, Nedda; Gordon Hawkins, Tonio; Alexey Lavrov, Silvio; Jonathan Blalock, Beppe; Arizona Musicfest Chorus; Michael Lewis, Chorus Master; Members of Phoenix Children's Chorus; Michael Scarola, Stage Director.