Domingo's dual roles complicate this 'Pagliacci'

November 15, 1997|By Pierre Ruhe | Pierre Ruhe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Washington Opera's production of Ruggiero Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci," now in repertoire at the Kennedy Center Opera House, takes the strategy of opera-as-star-vehicle new heights. Actually, we're aware of two sharp, towering personalities: the star singer and the star director. And therein lies this grand production's strengths and at least some of its complications.

Placido Domingo, the company's artistic director and its energetic center of attention, plays Canio, the cruel, cuckolded clown driven to murder. Although Domingo jet-sets from stage to stage, when he's in good voice, there is no other comparable tenor alive who can match his power, range of expression and authority.

In Thursday evening's performance, however, one had the suspicion he was singing with only two-thirds of his ability -- still thrilling to hear and by far the most penetrating voice on stage, but a shade disappointing nevertheless. At age 55, Domingo must understandably marshal his vocal resources with care, although this care inevitably comes with some loss of audience confidence in the product.

It took a singer as commanding as Domingo to overcome the gigantism of the sets and assembled masses in the production, the first the company has commissioned from stage director and designer Franco Zeffirelli. At first glance, it felt like another case of Zeffirelli bludgeoning the audience into awed appreciation, setting us in an alarming state of sensory overload.

Placed in a grimy modern Italian ghetto and with the same sleazy, voyeuristic charm of Fellini's film "La Strada," the scene included hundreds of people on stage, each with their own tales to tell: transvestites and prostitutes, sailors, gangsters, mothers and their children, vendors and bums -- every one of them a bit stir-crazy, all of them fascinating, if fatiguing, to watch. But soon the swollen crowd dispersed, and we were drawn further into the drama: The overload had the effect of blotting itself out. The scale of this production in some way compensated for the unconventional decision to perform the 70-minute "Pagliacci" alone. You wouldn't want to see another opera after (or before) this.

Where Zeffirelli's skill came through was in vividly drawing characters, beginning with the simple, economical prologue: Tonio -- another clown from the vagabond commedia dell'arte troupe, sung in rich, gravel tones by Gregory Yurisich -- stood before the curtain to deliver the plot's outline, a play within a play.

As Nedda, the suffering but faithless wife of Canio, Veronica Villarroel made memorable use of her voice's chestnut timbre. Manuel Lanza as Silvio (Nedda's lover) and David Cangelosi as the Harlequin Beppe were both strong and well-presented.

This production marks the company debut of Leonard Slatkin, conductor of the National Symphony, who is fast making himself a major component of Washington musical life. Despite his deeply musical inclinations, he's not a natural opera conductor, and he led the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in sluggish rapport with the singers.

'I Pagliacci'

What: Washington Opera

Where: The Kennedy Center, off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W. Washington

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Nov. 25 and 28; 7 p.m. Nov. 22; 2 p.m. Nov. 30

Tickets: $57-$150

Call: 800-444-1324

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