Baltimore Opera stages a big switcheroo Review: With 'Pagliacci' untraditionally first, then 'Cavalleria Rusticana,' it's a little like the tail wagging the dog. But performances in both are mostly well-done.

October 17, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The dramatic power in the ampersand that connects "Cav & Pag," as Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" are affectionately known, runs in only one direction. That was my conclusion Thursday evening in the Lyric Opera House when the Baltimore Opera Company reversed the usual order in its staging of this familiar double bill by beginning with "Pagliacci."

There is historical precedent for this. The first time these pieces appeared together, the order was Leoncavallo followed by Mascagni. And a note to the current production informs us that such an order is dramatically logical because the "Pagliacci" prologue anticipates "the dramatic aspect of both operas."

That's nice in theory, not in practice. The fact is that, while "Cavalleria" may contain better music, "Pagliacci" is dramatically more concise and powerful. Placing it at the head of a double bill turns the slower-paced, more lyrical "Cavalleria" into something of an anti-climax.

Having said that, I must add that I liked the performance of each work individually. The set and designs of director Roberto Lagana, which served both operas, persuasively transformed the Lyric stage into the piazza of small southern Italian village. Lagana, a Roman working for the first time in Baltimore, also demonstrated a sure directorial touch.

In the play within a play in "Pagliacci," his pacing of the mounting consternation of the members of the stage audience, as they realize that what they are watching is real, was especially effective in making us forget that what we were watching was staged. And Lagana's creation of the Easter Sunday pageant in "Cavalleria" was authentic and imaginative.

The level of the singing, especially in "Pagliacci," was generally high. Gegam Grigorian sung Canio movingly and accurately. He generates a flood of tone without straining, displays good legato and a command of quiet dynamic levels. He also has good taste. For all the intensity of his "Vesti la giubba," he withstood the temptation to take this aria, one of the most famous of all tenor showpieces, over the top. Elena Filipova contributed a nicely sung, if occasionally nervous-sounding, Nedda.

Antonio Salvadori was terrific. His prologue was poignant and human, and his creation of Tonio in the opera itself was little short of terrifying. Armando Ariostini showed a pleasant-sounding lyric baritone but was a little small-scaled and colorless as Silvio. Dean Anthony was an expert Beppe.

The cast for "Cavalleria" was almost entirely different. The exception was Salvadori, whose tough, snarling Alfio was as robust and exciting as his Tonio. As Santuzza, Ghena Dimitrova seemed awkward and studied. Her voice, however, was in fine shape. Her chest register was exciting to listen to, and she attacked high notes with confidence.

As Turiddu, Paul Lyon began shakily, with a pinched, rather graceless delivery of the Siciliana. But he is a good actor, and his singing got better. He showed boredom and irritation with Santuzza, embarrassment with Lola and shock, guilt and fear during his fatal confrontation with Alfio.

Susan Shafer (Mamma Lucia) and Nicole Biondo (Lola) sang with their usual professionalism. Andrea Licata's conducting, while occasionally a little too loud, was generally sympathetic to and supportive of his soloists and choristers.

Baltimore Opera Company

What: Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci"

Where: Lyric Opera House, 110 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8: 15 p.m. today and Friday; 3 p.m. tomorrow and Oct. 25; 7: 30 p.m. Wednesday

Tickets: $24-$109

Call: 410-727-6000

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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