Stories: In Il Tabarro, barge owner Michele works his small crew hard but also shows compassion. He could get by with one fewer stevedore, but doesn’t want to put Luigi out of work. Michele deeply loves his wife Giorgetta, but feels that a distance has grown between them since the death of their child a year earlier. He suspects that Giorgetta is taking comfort in the arms of another man, and vows revenge when he finds out who that alleged lover is.
In Pagliacci, Canio is the pompous head of a traveling circus that tours the Italian countryside. An amiable villager jokes with Canio about Canio’s wife Nedda, who stars opposite him in a skit about domestic jealousy, running off with the deformed circus fool Tonio. Canio bristles at the suggestion and finds it pointedly unfunny, stating that in reality, as opposed to their stage show, such a situation would be catastrophic for Nedda.
As fate has it, though, Nedda indeed is in love with one of the villagers, Silvio, and plans to run away with him after that evening’s performance. After spurning the lovelorn Tonio’s advances, the hunchback spies her with Silvio and informs Canio, but Silvio escapes unseen. Enraged and determined to learn Silvio’s identity, Canio subsequently is consumed with rage and jealousy in that night’s fateful presentation.
Highlights: Two stories with similar plots comprise an evening of verismo (true to life) operas presented by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Il Tabarro, a one-act opera with music by Giacomo Puccini and libretto by Giuseppe Adami based on a play by Didier Gold, first was performed in 1918. Pagliacci, with music and libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo, debuted as an opera in prologue and two acts in 1892.
Presented as bookends of the same performance by OTSL, similarities in plot between the two operas are striking. Both focus on basic human emotions such as love, jealousy and revenge and both have the endings you’d expect when two men love the same woman. In each story, the woman feels stifled by her stale environment. Devoid of feelings for her husband, she longs to escape with her lover to a more romantic and fulfilling life.
Under the precise direction of Ron Daniels and conductor Ward Stare, the result is a melodic evening that showcases fine singing in both operas, with the scales tilted to Il Tabarro for a more satisfying presentation.
Other Info: Il Tabarro has a Gothic feel to it, particularly a climax that could be straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe short story. That mood is enhanced by Puccini’s haunting score and the gritty, dismal set designed by Riccardo Hernandez, who uses a backdrop of an enormous barge to symbolize Giorgetta’s crushingly desolate and grimy home.
That effect is accentuated by Christopher Akerlind’s lonely lighting, while Emily Rebholz’s costumes reflect the drab, colorless lives of 19th century laborers toiling on the banks of the River Seine in Paris.
Emily Pulley makes a strong OTSL debut as the frustrated Giorgetta and showcases her clear soprano voice. Tim Mix, a former Gerdine Young Artist, is strong as Michele, both in his brooding acting style and with his rich, resonant baritone.
Tenor Robert Brubaker completes the love triangle as the lonely Luigi, with notable contributions by mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak as Giorgetta’s realistic friend Frugola, wife of the elderly and loyal stevedore Talpa. The latter is played sympathetically by Thomas Hammons, while Matthew DiBattista effectively plays stevedore Tinca, an aimless sort who drinks his life away.
Stare leads the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in a strong rendering of Puccini’s engrossing score, the cast is solid and the story both poignant and macabre.
If Il Tabarro has a ghoulish climax, Pagliacci is filled with creepiness throughout. Following a lengthy intermission, the OTSL stage is transformed into a brightly decadent circus, dominated by a large ‘circo’ sign that eventually looms above the action, and a simple set comprised of such elements as an elevated platform, an ironing board, table and chairs for the circus ‘skit’ featuring the brutish Canio and his unhappy wife Nedda.
Brubaker convincingly transforms himself from the love-struck Luigi in Il Tabarro to the most unsympathetic lout Canio, while Mix is equally adept in moving from the tragic Michele to the nefarious Tonio, whom Nedda says has a soul as ugly as his body.
DiBattista returns as Beppe, an actor who portrays Nedda’s on-stage lover, and Troy Cook plays her village lover Silvio. As Nedda, Kelly Kaduce radiates star power, both in her splendid comic timing and touch in the circus skit as well as demonstrating her powerful and commanding voice, a soprano that clearly and effectively reaches every corner of the venue.
Kaduce’s singing elevates this rendering of Pagliacci, even if the opera doesn’t match the consistent power of Il Tabarro. What is notable about OTSL’s Pagliacci is the costume design by Rebholz that reflects the commedia dell’arte derivation of the work, made more pronounced by the clowns’ use of aisles throughout the theater to ascend to the stage in their lily-white garb.
Sean Curran’s choreography enhances movements on stage, both in the skit and in the village scenes. Tom Watson’s wigs and makeup design add complementary touches to the pagliacci, Tonio and other characters. Daniels’ direction underscores the strengths of both operas and keeps everything moving briskly.
While Il Tabarro sometimes is performed as part of the Il Trittico trilogy, its pairing here with Pagliacci is logical and laudatory.
Operas: Il Tabarro/Pagliacci
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 5, 7, 13, 19, 23, 25, 29
Tickets: $25-$128; contact 961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard