Sarasota Opera’s “Cav & Pag” proves a varied bag of verismo

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gustavo Lopez Manzitti as Canio in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci."

Even with their enduring popularity, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci are difficult works to bring off. While complementary in their unbridled vocal demands and tales of violent Sicilian love affairs, the operas are more distinct in their styles and requirements than it seems on the surface, one reason the two works rarely enjoy consistent success together.

Considering artistic director Victor DeRenzi’s gift for blood-and-guts Italian repertoire, one expected more from Sarasota Opera’s production of Cav & Pag. Yet opera’s most famous double-bill has proven elusive for this company and so it was again Friday night with some inspired moments but ultimately presenting an evening of mixed verismo rewards.

Pagliacci—as is often the case—came off best. Leoncavallo’s opera remains so audaciously original and effective in its tawdry scenario of lust and murderous jealousy in a low-rent Sicilian traveling troupe, that even a mediocre cast can usually provide the big moments. What this Pagliacci lacked was the sense of mounting cumulative tension, and Friday the final scene of the clown Canio erupting and killing his philandering wife Nedda went decidedly off the boil.

Part of that was due to Gustavo Lopez Manzitti as Canio. The Argentinian tenor, who made an impressive Sarasota debut last year in Don Carlos, was at least two notches below where he needed to be in terms of dramatic intensity, giving us a rather generalized portrait of the cuckolded clown. Manzitti possesses a big, somewhat blustery tenor, and he delivered an imposing, finely sung Vesti la giubba, a striking portrait of Canio’s emotional desperation. Yet too often Manzitti failed to illustrate the tragic clown’s shifting emotions in a role that requires more dynamic dramatic commitment.

In her local debut, Aundi Marie Moore made an admirable Nedda. If a bit tentative at times in her acting and not quite conveying the darker side of Canio’s unfaithful wife, Moore entered more fully into the commedia dell’arte and explosive dangers of Act II. Vocally, the pretty young soprano shows great promise, her gleaming top notes displayed to fine effect in a superb Stridono lassu.

Sarasota Opera’s perennial baritone Michael Corvino was a worthy Tonio, though too often relying on volume rather than expressive point, in his Prologue. Heath Huberg as Peppe offered a vibrant account of Arlecchino’s O Columbina. And as Nedda’s lover, Evan Brummel was a vital, youthful-voiced Silvio.

Sarasota’s usually reliable director Stephanie Sundine has to take some blame for the lack of intensity with awkward blocking of Act II on the small stage. The consistently excellent Sarasota Opera Chorus sang with imposing force and flexibility, and was a vividly characterized on-stage audience for the play within a play.

If the Leoncavallo was fitfully undermined by too much singing that was just raw and loud, such was the case to an even greater degree in Cavalleria Rusticana. Manzitti, not helped by a silly red hat, seemed uncomfortable in the role of Turiddu, singing solidly but with too little color or expression. He also seemed dramatically reticent, perhaps saving his resources for the Leoncavallo second half. While Corvino was fine as the embittered hunchback Tonio, he was all wrong for Alfio, relying on hoary tone and volume for a complete lack of physical menace.

Kara Shay Thomson as Santuzza in Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana."

Kara Shay Thomson as Santuzza in Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana."

The best moments in Mascagni’s opera were provided by Kara Shay Thomson’s Santuzza. A memorable Tosca last year, Thomson does not possess an instrument of great beauty, yet she at least brought greater expressive depth and dramatic engagement to the role of the scorned Santuzza. Her duet with Manzitti, here more energized, was the high point of the first half.

Cathleen Candia was a serviceable Lola, and the chorus sang with rich tone and imposing weight under Roger L Bingaman’s direction. Victor DeRenzi directed both operas with his standard idiomatic touch and nuance, drawing quite gorgeous renderings of the operas’ intermezzi.

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci run through March 21.; 941-366-8450.

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Sat Mar 6, 2010
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