Florida Grand’s “Pag and Suor” opener a distinctly mixed bag
On opening night, the popular image of opera as a world of gowns and tuxedos approaches reality. The elegantly dressed crowd at Florida Grand Opera’s season opener Saturday night at the Arsht Center in Miami heard a double bill involving a homicidal clown and a suicidal nun, with some good singing, some bad singing, a much improved orchestra and some highly aggressive stage direction.
The evening opened with Pagliacci, Leoncavallo’s tale of cheating, jealousy and murder among a traveling theater troupe in southern Italy. This Andre Barbe production updated the opera from the late 19th century to what appeared to be the 1930s, judging from the old truck to one side and the utility poles and power lines that dominated the set. This was an effective change – partly because the spirit of vendetta presumably persisted in Calabria into the 20th century – and because the ugliness of the power lines went well with the brutality of the plot and the spirit of verismo, the opera realism movement of which Pagliacci is a prime example.
Pagliacci is a star vehicle for the tenor, with three big arias, including the most famous one in all of opera. In the role of Canio, the clown who must perform although his heart is broken, Jay Hunter Morris was not up to the job. His voice was thin and underpowered, particularly in the mid range. His Un tal gioco was underprojected and lacked menace. In Vesti la giubba, in which he must prepare for the show although he is devastated by the discovery of his wife’s cheating, he sang with little power or emotion, although he brought off the famous melody of the climax. Pagliacci is a tenor’s opera, and putting it on without a first-class singer is like staging Lucia di Lammermoor without an excellent soprano.
Soprano Kelly Kaduce starred in both operas, getting stabbed to death in Pagliacci, then committing suicide in Suor Angelica. She sang Nedda in Pagliacci with a powerful, lush, well-focused tone, and she was an animated presence on stage, whether singing about her desire for freedom or desperately trying to keep the play going as her husband’s threatening intentions became clear.
In the role of Silvio, Nedda’s useless lover – who proves good only at running away and then intervening too late to save her – Kyle Pfortmiller sang with a light, unforced tenor that melded well with Kaduce’s voice in their love duet. As Tonio, the hunchbacked actor in the troupe, Mark Rucker was appropriately oafish and thuggish. In Si puo, the opening aria, in which he addresses the audience directly, his gravelly baritone brought out the pathos and humanity under the costumes of the performers.
After an intermission lengthened to 30 minutes to give Kaduce a breather and time to don a nun’s habit, the evening continued with Suor Angelica, Puccini’s story of a young woman sent to a convent after the birth of her child. In the course of an hour, the young nun learns her child died two years before, takes poison, then as she realizes the mortal sin she is committing by suicide, prays for a sign of forgiveness and sees an image of the Virgin Mary bringing her child to her.
This is an ensemble work – visually as well as vocally, since it was nearly impossible to distinguish one nun from another at 40 yards – and there wasn’t a weak link in the cast. As Sister Genovieffa , a former shepherd, Julia Ebner sang with affecting purity of her desire to see and touch a lamb again. As the Principessa, Sister Angelica’s aunt, who shows up at the convent with papers for the nun to sign away her inheritance, Mzia Nioradze was appropriately icy and remote. Kaduce sang with no loss of power from her previous performance of the evening. In Senza mamma, her only real aria, she brought out the pathos of a woman overwhelmed by the loss of her child.
Since last year, addressing a long-standing weak spot in its productions, Florida Grand Opera has been using a different orchestra, and the new ensemble is a vast improvement. The playing Saturday was technically precise, with tight ensemble work and few fluffed notes. Strings were lush and luminous in the Puccini. Conductor Andrew Bisantz drew a sensitive, energetic performance from the ensemble, particularly in the last third of Suor Angelica, where the composer relies on the orchestra to bring out the sinister manner of the principessa, Sister Angelica’s horror at committing the mortal sin of suicide and her moment of transcendence before her death.
The ending of Suor Angelica is famously ambiguous. Did Puccini, who wasn’t particularly religious, really intend for the Virgin to return the child to Sister Angelica? Or was the child’s appearance a hallucination, a vision by the desperate, dying nun?
Director Sandra Pocceschi chose a third way, in which the boy was apparently still alive, although the performance didn’t make this clear. The event was foreshadowed by having the child run out on stage a few minutes earlier to the Principessa. Then after Angelica takes the poison and writhes in torment over her sin, the Principessa brings out the boy for Angelica to see and touch for a moment before dying. This approach wasn’t true to the spirit of the opera. Puccini’s ethereal, soaring music implies that something more is happening to Sister Angelica than simply a matter-of-fact meeting with the boy, and the transcendence of the music was undermined by this literal-minded ending.
Florida Grand Opera’s production of Pagliacci and Suor Angelica plays through Nov. 28 at the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; and Dec. 3 and 5 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Call 800-741-1010 or go to www.fgo.org.
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Sun Nov 15, 2009
at 9:57 am