My primary conclusion after seeing Ruggiero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci and Enrique Granados's Goyescas at the Central City Opera was that hearing singers of this caliber in a reasonably-sized auditorium with good acoustics, their voices flowing freely and undistorted by mikes, is a rare privilege. Soprano Emily Pulley's song about the nightingale in Goyescas moved me to tears. I couldn't figure out how a human body could possibly produce a sound so rich and strong.
This unthinking bliss is an unusual experience for me. As Westword's theater critic, I attend dozens of plays a year. I'm less likely than other theater-goers to give myself over fully to emotion, more likely to find flaws -- though I always hope that my ability to add to the discussion surrounding a play compensates for this. And, of course, there are still times when I'm bowled over by what I'm seeing -- perhaps more so because I know how it was achieved.
But while I love music with an uncomplicated passion I bring to nothing else in this world (except, perhaps, food), I am no musical expert. I can't compare Pulley to other sopranos who've assayed the role of Nedda in I Pagliacci, or evaluate director David Edwards's ghost-ridden staging against what others have done with the opera. I can only try to communicate some sense of what I experienced.
As the performance opens, the stage is lighted with a bare bulb and occupied by grotesque little clowns representing the ghosts of past performers; in fact, the entire program of two short operas is a meditation on the interaction between theater and life. Tonio, a bitter, crippled man, delivers the prologue for I Pagliacci, telling us that we are about to view a performance by a traveling troupe that features not kings and queens, but people like ourselves. The troupe is headed by Canio, who's very much in love with his wife, Nedda, but suspects that she's unfaithful to him. As indeed she is, with Silvio. Tonio, too, is in love with Nedda, but she has nothing but contempt for him. Canio catches Nedda with Silvio, and he's full of self-pitying rage as the play-within-a-play begins. This is when he sings the extraordinary aria that may be the one part of Pagliacci almost everyone recognizes: "Vesti la Giubba." He will put on his clown clothes, laugh through his tears and turn his agony into buffoonery, he says. Pretty soon, Canio's no longer acting. In front of the astounded onlookers, he stabs both Nedda and Silvio.
In other words, the plot is every bit as overblown and silly as most opera plots -- though it might have seemed more profound in 1892, when Pagliacci was first staged. The plot of Goyescas is not just sillier; it's more fragmentary, as well. The opera evolved from piano music Enrique Granados wrote in response to some paintings of Goya; the words and story were something of an afterthought.
But we're not really watching for story, and the music is grand. Leoncavallo carries you along on a wave of sound and passion. Granados's music is lyrical and accessible, and the nightingale song touches greatness. The voices, too, are sublime. Grant Youngblood, who plays Tonio and Paquiro, has an expressive, roomy baritone. Adam Klein's Canio is fierce and strong; his "Vesti la Giubba" is tight with rage rather than -- as is more usual -- plummily emotional. Chad Shelton brings a melodic, romantic tenor to the role of Fernando in Goyescas, and soprano Emily Pulley sings both Nedda and Rosario with exquisite power and purity.
Director Edwards has chosen to work against the lush romanticism of I Pagliacci. When the troupe performs, it's in regular street clothes, and rather than a clown suit, Canio wears Marlon Brando-style shirtsleeves. The little clowns that throng the stage for both pieces are indeed romantic figures, but it's a different kind of romance: the wistful, death-flavored absurdity of much early-twentieth-century European art. You can still find it in Czech films and puppet shows.
The concept of birds, flight, freedom and entrapment is expressed in a number of images. A feathered white wing obtrudes onto the stage from above throughout. Singing about the freedom of birds in I Pagliacci, Nedda curves her arms into great wings. For Goyescas, an image of one of Goya's paintings is projected onto a curtain: a man sleeping with his head in his arms, circled by ugly, bat-like, winged creatures. The painting is titled "The Sleep of Man Produces Monsters." These visual concepts are interesting and would have worked even better in a production with a more lavish tech budget.
I know we drove out of the mountains and back to Boulder after the operas, past tall grasses, foaming streams and rocky gray outcroppings. But in my memory, I just floated down, buoyed by music.
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