William Shookoff’s Opera By Request presented two short operas last night, I Pagliacci paired with Gianni Schicchi. It’s an interesting pairing. Once upon a time you’d encounter two verismo shockers (Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci), each ending with death and a loud climax.
Shookoff’s pairing, one that is becoming more common, brings us contrasting works. One is a dark tragedy, the other a witty comedy. One is the sole success of a composer –Ruggero Leoncavallo—who was never to attain a similar success thereafter; the other brings us the effortless melody we’ve come to expect from Puccini.
These operas contain two of the two most famous tunes in opera. “Vesti la giubba” was Caruso’s greatest success, the first record in history to sell over a million copies. I might be stretching things, to put “Oh mio babbino caro” in the same category (maybe “Un bel di” is better known?), but it is certainly a familiar tune, from its appearance in such films as Room with a View and Prizzi’s Honor.
There were several great moments in Pagliacci. Larry Tozer started the evening with a warm reading of the Prologue. Stephen MacDonald was a tuneful Beppe, particularly in his serenade during the play within the opera (as Arlecchino). Not surprisingly the highlight of the opera came during Canio’s big aria, in a vividly angry reading from Jay Lambie.
In contrast, Gianni Schicchi was more of an ensemble experience, one that seemed to bring out the best in Shookhoff—who played with more intensity than in the first opera—and his soloists. Comic honours must go to Monica Zerbe (Zita) & Henry Irwin (Simone). On the lyrical side, Macdonald was a wonderful Rinuccio, opposite the Lauretta of Ada Balon, whose aria was genuinely radiant. Andrew Tam –reportedly under the weather—was especially commanding as Schicchi.
Opera By Request will be back in a few days, offering a special treat. Friday the 13th we’ll hear their Das Rheingold, the night before the Metropolitan Opera HighDef broadcast of Die Walküre Saturday afternoon.