"Let the seduction begin," goes Florida Grand Opera's slogan for the 2009-'10 season. Whether that's a misstep or a cruel joke is unclear. If the season's first two operas can be said to be about anything, they are about the evils of seduction — how it ruins women, disrupts lives, chips away at the moral foundation of our civilization, and leads not to catharsis or exciting artistic achievement (as the slogan might imply), but to bloodshed, death, and bereavement.
Pagliacci is a short two-act Ruggero Leoncavallo opera about a clown and his unfaithful wife. Many stratospheric careers have begun beneath Pagliaccio's thick face paint, and many more have thrived there — including those of Enrico Caruso, Jussi Björling, and Luciano Pavarotti. Pagliaccio is a wronged man who does the wrong thing, a victim who becomes a victimizer, and as such is one of the most rewarding, complex roles in the tenor canon. Look on YouTube for Giuseppe di Stefano's rendition of the famous aria "Vesti la Giubba," and you'll see a good man struggling with his every last fiber to keep from turning into the murderer the libretto demands he become.
Why does the libretto demand it? Because the libretto is silly, and also because it is based on a novel written in and about an era that makes honor civilization's arch value. Its protagonist's honor has been wounded beyond repair. Pagliaccio (Jay Hunter Morris) is the leader of a troupe of entertainers that has come to perform in a village, and in that village lives the secret lover of Pagliaccio's wife. The wife, Nedda (Kelly Kaduce), is a popular lady — the troupe's resident hunchback, Tonio (Mark Rucker), has designs on her as well. He tries and fails to seduce her while Pagliaccio is at a pub.
Pagliacci and Suor Angelica
Pagliacci/Suor Angelica: By Ruggero Leoncavallo/Giacomo Puccini. Conducted by Andrew Bisantz. Directed by Sandra Pocceschi. Produced by Renaud Doucet. With Mark Rucker, Jay Hunter Morris, David Bailey, Kelly Kaduce, Mzia Nioradze, and others. Through November 28. Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722, fgo.org
Later, Tonio spies Nedda cavorting with her lover, Beppe (David Bailey). Feeling vindictive, he tells Pagliaccio of the indiscretion, and Pagliaccio informs Nedda that he'd kill her if he didn't need her alive to tell him her mystery lover's identity. Quite sensibly, she refuses. Then, incredibly, the troupe puts its difficulties aside to perform the night's show, during which Pagliaccio has a temper tantrum and stabs his wife to death. Then he kills Beppe, too, after Beppe belatedly jumps to Nedda's defense. So ends Pagliacci. As the venerable Anna Russell used to say about Wagner's operas: "I'm not making this up, you know."
In order to make Pagliacci the least bit credible, a director needs two things: first, a leading man who can find the humanity in a really despicable protagonist, and second, to make sure the opera is set in a time and place where such behavior is, if not condoned, at least not completely antisocial. We're supposed to like Pagliaccio.
FGO's Pagliaccio is unlikable because tenor Morris, despite impressive vocal endowments, seems more calculating than tortured. He wants to kill his wife, and his wailing to the contrary seems downright crocodilian. The play's set makes Pagliaccio's behavior seem even worse than it is, if that's possible: The town where the troupe performs looks like the American dustbowl, and the set's most notable decoration is a 1930s truck. Though the '30s were not the greatest decade for gender relations, they were a good deal better than any period in the previous century. Locating Pagliacci here makes Pagliaccio seem more like a vindictive redneck than a tragic clown. Why subject him to that? I can only imagine that producer Renaud Doucet or director Sandra Pocceschi wanted to rub our faces in the opera's misogyny as a sort of microcosmic critique of male-dominated opera in general. If so, it's a queer endeavor — directing an opera just to prove how bad it is.
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After a 20-minute intermission, Kelly Kaduce is back onstage as a sweet but stupid nun in Puccini's all-female one-act Suor Angelica. It's set in a convent, which means most of the characters wear the same outfit. For several long minutes, it is impossible to tell Kaduce's title character from her sisters. Only later, after some cagey blocking is asserted, is it obvious Angelica is the nun standing to the right of the others.
Angelica came to the convent seven years earlier at the insistence of her wealthy family, which was scandalized when she had a child out of wedlock. She hasn't heard from them since, and during her tenure at the convent — or internment, depending on your view of such things — she has become extremely pious. (The importance of the Virgin Mary in her cosmology might be partially divined from Suor Angelica's breathtaking set: a 20-foot stone relief of the Virgin's face, marred by a tear streak as wide as a bowling lane.) Suddenly, her aunt, a princess (Mzia Nioradze), arrives and instructs Angelica to sign over her share of the family estate so that her sister can get married. (The reasons for this necessity are lost in translation.) During their discussion, Angelica's aunt informs her that her son is dead. This isn't true, but it doesn't matter. Angelica kills herself.
Musically, Suor Angelica is a forgotten gem, ethereal and lovely, and Kaduce's voice cuts straight to the back of the Arsht Center's auditorium like a big blue heavenly laser. Thematically, however, it is about as seductive as an execution. Like Pagliacci, it teaches us that the wages of sex are death.
FGO's next opera is Lucia di Lammermoor, about a woman who dies in a fit of insanity after having the temerity to love the man of her choice. Following a brief foray into comedy with Il Barbiere di Siviglia, FGO closes the season with Carmen, about the French seductress whose jealous suitor stabs her to death. That means FGO's season is bookended with male-on-female stabbings. What this says about those in charge of FGO's programming, I have no idea. Not much, probably. Perhaps only that they are taking on the thankless task of trying to rebrand an art form that is stuck in a time not our own.