Franco Zeffirelli’s “Pagliacci”: Over-the-Top in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES (09/17.05): First unleashed upon a more innocent world in 1998, Franco Zeffirelli’s fantastically bloated production of Leoncavallo’s iconic one-act opera, Pagliacci, has now successfully survived all the initial critical debates —

Los Angeles Opera’s Over-the-Top Pagliacci With a Cast of Thousands!

Review by David Gregson

LOS ANGELES (09/17.05): First unleashed upon a more innocent world in 1998, Franco Zeffirelli’s fantastically bloated production of Leoncavallo’s iconic one-act opera, Pagliacci, has now successfully survived all the initial critical debates about its needless lavishness, not to mention the obvious objection that the piece is almost invariably paired with something else — usually Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, or some other equally brief work, either familiar or obscure.

Two one-acts would seem to make a pretty decent evening of theater for the patron’s money; but, quite obviously, bigger (much bigger!) and shorter is just fine with most audiences. Even with one 20-minute intermission, a $170 ticket to the LAO’s revival of the Zefferelli show only buys one hour and forty minutes of opera. But, oh what a show – with a cast of thousands. Or at least it’s a cast of so many people crowding the stage that finding the principals and matching them to their corresponding supertitles must be absolute murder for those who do not know the opera by heart.

Naturally, the action is updated from 1870 Calabria to — well, some village in Italy circa 1970? Hard to tell exactly. Could be earlier or a bit later. Certainly not recently because there are no “mucks and midriffs” about. (You know: The boys with their pants falling off and the girls with bare mid sections and pierced navels.) We see about three stories of tenement housing built under what could be an elevated steel and concrete highway. Television sets glow in the windows, vehicles and animals wander about, and a vibrant street life rivaling Mardi Gras seems the norm. (In fact, Leoncavallo says the action takes place during the Feast of the Assumption.) The audience – that is to say we are left breathless by the exhilarating slum dwellers and the troupes of acrobats. And, after all — why shouldn’t we get a circus at the opera from time to time? Too much highbrow tragedy in your life — unless you get away to Vegas now and then.

A careful perusal of the cast roster (reproduced below) will show you the perils of the quick glance and the snap decision. Wow! The Alagnas — Roberto Alagna and his wife Angela Gheorghiu. All this and Zeffirelli too! So I sez to myself, I think I’ll try to take in that matinee on September 17. Now — there we are. All set. What a weekend. That and The Grand Duchess on the Saturday just before. Only – oops! Gheroghiu (and I love her while I’m not wild about him) is out of the matinee performance Somebody named Annalisa Raspagliosi is the Nedda instead. Ei!…quale orro! What have I done? What can I tell my readers at Opera West?

Well — in the great Broadway tradition of “Kid, you’re going to walk out on that stage a nobody, but you’re going to walk off a star!” — Annalisa Raspagliosi made you forget all about the famous headliner you’d hoped to see. In a lifetime of Pagliacci‘s, I cannot recall a Nedda I have enjoyed more. If the stage blocking had been slightly different, she could have easily stolen the show from everyone else. And I’m not sure she didn’t. Praise for her was all I heard around my portion of the auditorium at opera’s end. People seemed to resent Mr. Alagna’s milking the applause at great length and at every opportunity (including the break between so-called Acts One and Two).

And the rest of the cast, while quite good, was not smashing. Vocally, it was not the Pagliacci of one’s dreams, though Alberto Mastromarino’s Tonio was reasonably accomplished, Mariuz Zwiecien’s Silvio was unusually sexy, and Greg Fedderly had an appealing turn with Beppe’s Harlequin serenade. Alagna, of course, looks great and has a lovely voice, but his top is so often off (flat or sharp depending on whom you talk to) that the overall impression is ruined. And, while I have liked him in many parts in the past, I am never quite sold on his vocal work in these verismo type roles.

So for me, it was Annalisa Raspagliosi’s show. On her recording, even Maria Callas has a hard time making the syrupy bird song ,”Oh! Che volo d’augeli” convincing, but Raspagliosi lived and breathed it: A wish to fly over the rainbow. Her uniformly wonderful vocal tone was magnificently managed to distinguish between the dual parts of her personality: The artificial commedia dell’arte character Columbine, and the passionate adulteress, Nedda. Meanwhile, she found an exciting orchestra pulse kicked up by conductor Nicola Luisotti, and the choral work was wonderfully thought out by William Vendice, undaunted by the deployment of his troops over, as it were, an entire cityscape.

CAST: Roberto Alagna — CANIO
Angela Gheorghiu — NEDDA
Annalisa Raspagliosi — NEDDA (SEPT. 17)
Alberto Mastromarino — TONIO
Greg Fedderly — BEPPE
Julian Fielder — FIRST MAN
James R. Guthrie — SECOND MAN

CONDUCTOR – Nicola Luisotti
DIRECTOR – Franco Zeffirelli
SET DESIGNER – Franco Zeffirelli
COSTUME DESIGNER – Raimonda Gaetani

RUNNING TIME: 1 hour 40 minutes

Sunday September 11, 2005 4:00 p.m.
Wednesday September 14, 2005 7:30 p.m.
Saturday September 17, 2005 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday September 21, 2005 7:30 p.m.
Saturday September 24, 2005 2:00 p.m.
Thursday September 29, 2005 7:30 p.m.
Saturday October 1, 2005 2:00 p.m.

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