Florida Grand’s “Pag and Suor” opener a distinctly mixed bag

By David Fleshler

Jay Hunter Morris as Canio and Kelly Kaduce as Nedda in FGO's Pagliacci. Photo: Gaston de Cardenas

Jay Hunter Morris as Canio and Kelly Kaduce as Nedda in FGO's "Pagliacci." Photo: Gaston De Cardenas

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.


Posted in Performances

20 Responses to “Florida Grand’s “Pag and Suor” opener a distinctly mixed bag”

  1. Posted Nov 15, 2009 at 12:45 pm by Dave R.

    Haven’t seen this yet, but your review describes a typical, uneven FGO performance (although it’s good to hear about the improvements in the pit; no surprise with Robertson gone).

    Now, will somebody please explain to me why we’re celebrating 25 years of Bob Heuer in February?

  2. Posted Nov 15, 2009 at 4:00 pm by Dave R.

    Interesting article in the Kansas City Star today, something I wish FGO would heed:


    My favorite quotes, from Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center: “Arts organizations that do that are in danger of having even less, suffering more and recovering slower. I see a lot of press being written about now’s the time to do accessible work, and I couldn’t disagree more. The press loses interest, the public loses interest and I don’t see that as a smart response. When you do daring, interesting work, that’s what energizes a community — not doing ‘Cats’ every night. And yet you’d be surprised around the country how many boards are pressing to do ‘Cats’ or its equivalent in another art form — ‘Swan Lake’ in ballet and ‘La Boheme’ in opera. It’s not what energizes a community. It’s not what energizes donors.”

    Of course, FGO, under the 25-year leadership of Bob Heuer, does the opposite.

  3. Posted Nov 16, 2009 at 9:34 am by Wolfgang731

    I think it’s all together possible that Mr. Morris simply had a bad night. I think any regular opera goer can state seeing even some of the giants of opera struggle on occasion. I know I have. An artist whose recent repertoire consists basically of heldentenor roles would seem unlikely to be done in by the vocal demands of Canio. If you can sing Florestan, Dutchman and Siegfried, Canio will hardly be your Achilles Heel. Also, this is not a new role for him; he’s sung it various times and, I’m assuming, with some degree of success. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  4. Posted Nov 16, 2009 at 2:55 pm by Raffaele Cardone

    Is there any reason to fundamentally change the context of Suor Angelica’s child death and appearance? I am so glad that Puccini is not physically present in our days. I wish I could openly discuss what is all about the death of Suor Angelica but I would prefer doing…in Italian.

  5. Posted Nov 16, 2009 at 3:14 pm by Dave R.

    Possible, but it’s also possible that Mr. Morris is simply one among the countless singers who doesn’t crossover well from the German to the Italian repertoire. As I said, though, I haven’t heard him. I’m just not willing to give FGO the benefit of the doubt.

  6. Posted Nov 17, 2009 at 10:21 am by Ricky

    Dave R. – with all due respect, it would seem that you have a profound and intense dislike for FGO and that is, without question, your God given prerogative; however, one word comes repeatedly to mind with respect to your recent and past comments: Schadenfreude. Jay Hunter Morris was until recently a tenor entrenched in the Italian repertoire. We’re not talking about Windgassen or Melchior who sang almost exclusively in the heldentenor fach. Giving a singer the benefit of the doubt, doesn’t mean putting your stamp of approval on the production values of an opera company.

  7. Posted Nov 17, 2009 at 9:26 pm by Wolfgang731

    I haven’t seen this production and since I’m disinclined, by nature, to make statements based on someone else’s opinions, my comment is more an all around observation based on several seasons than anything else. Though I have no doubt that Bob Heuer has done his best during the past 25 years, and there have been some very notable successes, I have no doubt that the time has come for him to move on. I can’t imagine what he has had to face or make assumptions that I could do better (but then, again, I’m not an artistic administrator), it would appear that he has run out of steam and has, for some years now, been coasting along with little, to no, artistic vision. It would seem that he’s merely been substituted by a numbers cruncher with his sights focused exclusively on the bottom line. When it comes to the arts, you can’t be exclusively a numbers man. You loose your integrity and respect as a promoter of art and, in my eyes, a patron, he has.

  8. Posted Nov 17, 2009 at 9:30 pm by Lisa Talon

    Conductor Andrew Bisantz rocked it. He brought the orchestra back to life, was clear, impassioned, and dramatic. Great to have him in house!

  9. Posted Nov 17, 2009 at 11:11 pm by Dave R.

    Ricky: I respect the rest of your comment, but believe me, I take no pleasure at all in the failures of FGO. None. Zero. I wish FGO were a good opera company so I didn’t have to travel elsewhere to get my opera fixes, but they’re not, so I do, and although I take great pleasure in many (but not all) of the productions I see elsewhere, I don’t take great pleasure in having to spend as much time and money as I do to experience them. I’d rather stay closer to home, but unfortunately, FGO doesn’t give me that option (Palm Beach Opera occasionally does). And believe me, I’m not the only person in South Florida who feels and acts this way. Schadenfreude? Just the opposite.

    I have a question that I’m sure nobody here could answer, but I’ll ask it anyway. I know for a fact that several people in South Florida recently traveled to Houston to see HGO’s Lohengrin. I wonder how often FGO attracts out-of-towners to its productions…and I’m not talking about snowbirds down for the winter. I’m talking about people from reasonably far away who say, “Wow, FGO is doing something I have to see,” then spend the time and money to travel to South Florida for the sole purpose of attending an FGO performance. I’d be willing to bet that this almost never happens.

    Schadenfreude. I might be over-critical of FGO, but man, you really touched a nerve with that!

  10. Posted Nov 17, 2009 at 11:15 pm by Dave R.

    Ricky, I know how you’re going to answer that question: Anna Karenina. That’s one…the last time FGO did anything of interest. Give me one more within the last five years. Ten years, even. When did Morris sing Dutchman down here? 15 years ago?

  11. Posted Nov 18, 2009 at 3:39 pm by Barbara Bourne

    It’s time to admit it… FGO just does not measure up to a major opera company. No more scapegoats left – time to fire the chief instead of the indians. Mr. Heuer should be shown the door as soon as he finishes wasting money on his anniversary bash. A real music director should be a first priority, someone with the vision to lead the company in the right direction. The new music director should be a part of the interview process for Robert Heuer’s replacement, and the board should make sure that they are on at least equal footing. The music director should not be completely under the thumb of a businessman. We have seen the results of this – mediocrity. Blame should be addressed first to those who are truly in control.

  12. Posted Nov 20, 2009 at 5:09 pm by Jung

    I saw it. Bad direction, which is not mentioned. There are so many things wrong, it’s hard to enumerate them. Nedda says in the libretto that Tonio tried to kiss her. Well, NO; he had her under him and was trying to rape her, not kiss her. Townspeople do not congregate on the players’ stage, nuns do not stand on pews or benches. How can Canio not know the name of her lover when he has stood there in front of them while they writhe on the floor, watching them for a few seconds while not reacting at all. I agree that they do the same opera over and over here; but the public wants that. This public. They will not go to the opera here unless they have heard a tune of it or know it is something “popular.” German opera? forget it. French opera? well, maybe. Remember, much of this public has never been to an opera house. Many more have never seen a opera. Most have never seen the opera being played. Example: they applauded twice before arias were finished. They applauded “la commedia è finita” and did not wait for the music to finish. FGO cannot afford to do a production where the public stays away. $$$$$$

  13. Posted Nov 22, 2009 at 7:50 pm by DavidY

    “…Kyle Pfortmiller sang with a light, unforced tenor…” – I’m sure Kyle would have to sing a very forced tenor, given that he is a baritone, and that Silvio is a baritone role.


  14. Posted Nov 22, 2009 at 9:41 pm by JuanM

    I have read all the comments and here are my 2 cents worth.
    I saw the production on Friday night (11/20) the house was half empty. They were actually bringing people down from the upper levels to the orchestra level to make the house look better. Someone mentioned possibly Hunter Morris had an off night opening night. Well he must have have another off night Friday night because it sounds like I saw a repeat of the performance that was reviewed.
    My main beef is with the production of Suor Angelica. Did the director read the libretto and/or listen to the music?? Obviously he did not realize the character of the aunt is called the Zia PRINCIPESSA – not the upper-class-socialite-“witch”. There was nothing regal or imposing about Nioradze. On top of that, during her scene with Angelica one sat stage left while the other sat stage right which did not help to create any tension either. But what took the cake was the fact that in this production Angelica’s son is not dead. The aunt lied, and in a fit of remorse she brings in the boy as Angelica dies. Didn’t the director realize the whole point of committing suicide was to be reunited with her child, and if the child is still alive, it only makes the suicide a very cruel joke?? When I saw the set and realized the virgin was done like on a 3-d effect, I thought it was a brilliant idea because at the end they would probably pull the panels away to reveal the virgin with the child; boy was I wrong!!

    It is bad enough that as a subscriber this season because of the economy we are subjected to 5 operas that I really do not need to see again as long as I live. I mean unless I see IL Barbiere with Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez – there is no point in seeing it again. The fact that Friday night was practically empty tells you that in troubled times, people are not going to spend money to see something they are tired of seeing again and again with a cast of unknown singers.

    I guess I might have to start taking my subscription money and go to Sarasota instead.

  15. Posted Nov 24, 2009 at 9:14 pm by Ryan

    I saw the production last Sunday and everything I have read here seems to be accurate. Morris was extremely drab in Pagliacci and his inadequacies were only more pronounced juxtaposed to Kaduce’s amazing voice. I was excited to see Suor Angelica, as it’s one of my favorites and I was disappointed in the change of plot with the child not dying. The main reason being that being reunited with her son in Heaven was assurance that despite the fact that she committed suicide, her prayers to the Virgin Mary were answered and Angelica’s soul was spared and went to Heaven. It’s never a good idea to take artistic freedom with a genius’ masterpiece.

  16. Posted Nov 25, 2009 at 1:11 pm by Ricky

    Dave R. – I’m not cheerleading for FGO. Not at all, so if you think that my statement to you was in defense of FGO, you’re wrong. If my use of the term schadenfreude struck a nerve with you and you felt offended, then I honestly apologize. I just call it like I see it. Trust me; I believe that Bob Heuer needs to go not yesterday but 5 years ago. The moment he chose to mount Szulamit in lieu of Bartok and Ravel, I knew it was the first death knell. Many years later, FGO is an artistically moribund company, adrift and positively aimless. He took what was a small but much respected opera company (that mounted productions with major operatic talent) and driven it into the ground. No doubt, this was never his intention but the damage is done. What’s sad is that if the powers that be don’t make a change and make it soon, I see FGO going by way of Baltimore, Orlando, Connecticut, Pacific Opera and that is six feet under.

  17. Posted Nov 27, 2009 at 11:01 am by Dave R.

    Ricky: Your use of the word schadenfreude didn’t offend me. When I said you touched a nerve, I meant that it kind of made me laugh. Here’s what offends me:

    1. The way FGO markets its productions: “This is the opera that Nicolas Cage took Cher to in Moonstruck” or “This opera was the subject of a Seinfeld episode.” They rarely (not ever, but rarely) advertise the merits of a production or the singers.
    2. FGO reacting to the current fiscal crisis by going to safe programming. This makes no sense to me at all. The only way you’re going to get people to spend their money these days is by staging something that people feel they have to see. Not by going safe and doing operas we’ve seen a million times with unexciting casts. By the way, I have nothing against Jay Hunter Morris, but FGO should have known that he has been unsuccessful in this role before.
    3. The Bob Heuer 25th anniversary tribute on February 25th. You mentioned schadenfreude? Well, here’s what would give me great pleasure: a nearly-empty house on that night. Right now, judging by available tickets at the FGO site, they’re going to have to paper the house to get a crowd. There are a few singers on that program who I’d like to see, but I’m not going because I’m not going to give the appearance of paying tribute to a guy who has done nothing for FGO. What I’d rather do is stage a Heuer protest outside of the Arsht Center on his big night. Seriously. It’s the only way of letting the board know how dissatisfied many of us are (judging by the comments on this website). They’re judging success (7th largest opera company in the U.S.) by budget and attendance. Well, how about if we let them know that some of us judge success another way: by artistic contribution.

    By the way, in all fairness, Eglise Gutierrez will likely be worth seeing in Lucia.

  18. Posted Nov 28, 2009 at 10:09 pm by JuanM

    I couldn’t agree with Dave R more. By they way he mentioned Eglise Gutierrez will be worth seeing in Lucia. That is another of my big gripes with FGO – they have added performances now and have Friday and Saturday performances so same cast can’t sing both days. I have been a subscriber for several years now and always had Saturday nights performance and always saw the “main cast”. Last season I had to change just about all of my performances to the Friday night because they had the “B” cast on my Saturday. When I mentioned this to FGO person on the phone, was told they don’t have an “A” and “B” cast they are all equally good so my complaint was not valid. Funny, I don’t recall they advertising “Lakme” with Leah Partridge and whoever sang the extra performances, etc. If they would have the decency to tell you when you subscribe who will be singing when, then I would have chosen the Friday instead of the Saturday night performances. It’s bad enough we get unexciting performers in operas I have seen countelss times, but to get even less unexciting performers really takes the cake.

  19. Posted Nov 30, 2009 at 9:24 am by Ricky

    Dave R. – Interesting you should mention the Lucia with Eglise, as that is the only production I was planning on attending this season. If nothing else, I know we’ll be treated to a first rate, vocally and dramatically committed Lucia. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the rest of the cast is at least solid and the direction cohesive and logical.

  20. Posted Dec 21, 2009 at 9:53 am by Sergio da Silva

    Morris was awful and I did not attend opening night. The different ending in Suor Angelica did not bother me and the two singers (Kaduce and Niodraze) were good.
    Now as to FGO I was extremely disappointed with their season and only renewed at the last minute. Why did I renew? Because I know they are in trouble and it would give me no pleasure (nor it would be good for South Florida) if they went bankrupt.
    Heuer should have left many years ago, he simply has no artistic vision and worse without an artistic director (since Robertson, whom I didn’t like particularly) has made the opera company even worse.
    Although FGO budget is limited, they need to replace Heuer with someone with a daring artistic vision. Stop playing safe (no more Barbiere, La Boheme, Tosca, etc.) and give us some Wagner, Janacek, Verdi (but not Aida, Traviata or Rigoletto but rather Simon Boccanegra, Stifellio, Falstaff, Ernani and so on), French opera (Debussy, Massenet, etc.). And there should be one new commission every year (no I’m not kidding), it is essential to the vitality of opera and the company. All that is achievable if there is more cooperation with other companies, if HGO is presenting Lohengrin, why not share the costs with them and bring it here? The same goes for if the MET is presenting the House of the Dead. I really cannot understand why FGO does not work like that. I remember a few years back they said they would do that exchange with the South American opera companies (the Colon in Buenos Aires and the one in Chile are the two worth considering) but nothing came out of that. It just makes sense to me both artistically and financially.

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