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In Review > North America

Pagliacci & The Seven Deadly Sins

FAIRFAX, VA
Virginia Opera
10/9/16

VIRGINIA OPERA broke up the usual ham-and-eggs serving of short verismo operas by balancing Leoncavallo's Pagliacci with another piece all about human failings—Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins. Given how at least four of those sins figure prominently in Pagliacci, the pairing made sense. Director Keturah Stickann placed both works in the economically challenged 1930s. The characters of Anna I and Anna II from the Weill opera popped up briefly later during Pagliacci, as if they had tired of Louisiana and somehow made their way to an Italian village. A gritty scenic design by Constantine Kritikos also provided a link between the pieces, underlined, with an almost Fellini-esque flourish, by bits of clown paraphernalia added to the costumes for some figures (most pointedly a cop) in Seven Deadly Sins. This attempt at making the operas go together looked forced at times, but the theatrical vitality of the concept and the musical urgency that complemented it added up to a convincing, involving experience.

In Seven Deadly Sins, Stickann left no sin unturned visually (men zipping up flies became a mini-motif), and enriched the atmosphere with lively use of projections (Peter Torpey) as the brief tale of the drifting Annas unfolded. On October 9 at George Mason University Center for the Arts, Ute Gfrerer offered exemplary diction (the opera was performed in the Auden/Kallman English-language translation) and finely nuanced phrasing as Anna I. Her rapid vibrato added to the sting of the text. The soprano was smoothly partnered by Gabrielle Zucker, whose expressive acting and dancing made Anna II a similarly effective presence. Bass Christopher Morales (an amusingly bearded, hair-in-curlers Mother), tenor Bille Bruley (Father), tenor Stefan Barner (Brother I) and baritone Lee Gregory (Brother II) offered sturdy, vivid vocalism and clearly relished bringing the characters to life. Conductor Adam Turner had the music churning brightly and drew snappy, even sizzling work from the orchestra.

Things were somewhat less impressive in the pit for Pagliacci, which could have used richer-toned violins and, at the end of the opera's first half, better-tuned basses. Still, the ensemble poured on the expressive heat, matched onstage by the excellent chorus, as Turner shaped a propulsive, stylish account of the score. As Tonio, Michael Chioldi delivered the Prologue with startling impact, his burnished tone matched by dynamic phrasing. If some low notes lacked heft, the baritone's singing remained impressively muscular throughout the opera. Kelly Kaduce likewise ran out of tonal steam at the low end of her register, but the soprano's big, bright sound served her well in the role of Nedda. So did her finely detailed portrayal, which found her leaping off a fountain rim, arms spread as if in flight, at the end of “Stridono lassu,” and, in a telling moment, almost weakening as Tonio pushed himself on her. As Canio, Clay Hilley offered abundant lung power, if not much tonal warmth. Other than an over-the-top finish to “Vesti la giubba,” the tenor's ardent phrasing also paid dividends. Two carry-overs from the Weill production rounded out the cast. Gregory sounded undernourished and somewhat taxed as Silvio, yet brought a lyrical sweep to his lines.  Barner sang tenderly as Beppe. Everyone revealed assured acting skills, nowhere more compellingly than in the “Pagliaccio e Columbina” performance, which Stickann directed in unusually dynamic fashion. The steady stream of broad, off-color humor seemed genuine for a troupe anxious to hold an audience in the provinces; little touches, such as kids sneaking backstage and being scooted out, made the staging all the more engaging. The violent flashes really were surprising, the final moments truly affecting.  —Tim Smith



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