Tears of a Clown bely a painful story of blood and love

Georgina Benison –

Last weekend the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma presented two performances of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 dark comedy, “I Pagliacci” (The Clowns). At 80 minutes long, the opera is often presented in a double-bill, but on Thursday night it formed the main course of the evening in two Acts, at the Royal Opera House, Muscat. This 1992 production was created by the world-famous Italian stage and film director, Franco Zeffirelli, and was faithfully revived for the ROHM stage by Stefano Trespidi. The direction was busy, colourful and highly animated, reflecting Leoncavallo’s intention to create a modern work, set in a contemporary world. Now 95 years old, Zeffirelli stated, ‘Usually, I am strongly opposed to any attempt to modernise an opera, or ‘actualising’ it.. However, I made an exception for “Pagliacci”, which is the only work I have done where the singers wear contemporary clothes’.
The 65 Chorus members of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and 58 Mimes and Extras wore a dubious mixed bag of 1950s and 60s fashions. The Soloists and 11 Acrobats wore perfectly caricatured traditional Clown costumes, which set them out and above the crowd, designed by Raimonda Gaetani, in collaboration with Zeffirelli in 2003, who was present each night. The story of “Pagliacci” is based on a case from Leoncavallo’s boyhood in Calabria, Italy, where a violent crime influenced his creativity in later life. A travelling acrobat killed his wife in a fit of jealousy, and was acquitted for a crime of passion, but when he later connived to kill the lover, he was sentenced for premeditated murder.
The Opera began with the 70-strong Orchestra di Teatro Dell’Opera di Roma playing the moving, engaging Overture under the highly successful and experienced Maestro, Paolo Olmi, anticipating the mood and atmosphere to come. Out from the closed curtain crept Tonio, the Clown as Prologue, played brilliantly by the superb Italian baritone, Marco Vratogna, a leading verismo singer of his generation. In, ‘Si Puo’, he announced that what the audience is about to see is a true story, and that actors have the same joys and sorrows as other people.
The curtain rose to reveal a Piazza in rural Sicily, backed by balconies of a 3-storey tenement building, reminiscent of “West Side Story”. A small theatre company had just arrived and the stage was packed with colloquial activity: a motor-bike, a Vespa, 11 acrobats cartwheeling across the stage or riding unicycles, crowds assembled and children ran about. Together with reading subtitle translations, it was an exhausting but supremely satisfying watch! A Cadillac drove across the back of the stage and the Circus Caravan was wheeled on. Canio the troupe manager, performed by the 55-year-old Argentinian tenor, Jose Cura, announced his show. Cura has played Canio hundreds of times in 30 different productions, including his own 2007 re-imagining, “La Commedia e Finita”. His performance in Muscat reflected his distinctive bold and bright tenor qualities, with hints of dark baritone that have led him to international fame.
One of the villagers suggested that Tonio was secretly courting Canio’s young wife, Nedda, sowing the seeds of jealousy which permeate the opera in an Othello-like cancer. Davinia Rodriguez, a 37-year-old soprano from Las Palmas played Nedda with such ease and agility that her acting skills appeared to come as naturally as her beautiful singing voice.
It was Davinia’s first visit to Oman – with which she was utterly enchanted – and only her second time in the role after her recent appearance at Teatro Regio di Torino. Finally the crowd dispersed, leaving Nedda with the (locally recruited) children in 21st century accessories, to sing the impossibly passionate, ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guard! Stridono Lassu….’ (What fire he had in his look. I lowered my eyes for fear that he could read my secret thoughts!….I don’t know what I crave”), envying the birds their freedom and dreaming that she could escape Canio’s brutality. Along with other child-extras was Davinia’s own daughter, Sofia Frizza, a 6-year-old thespian-extraordinaire, who often travels with and mimics her mother.
In fact, Nedda does have a lover: Silvio. The established Albanian baritone, Gezim Myshketa, received great acclaim from an enthusiastic audience for his convincing portrayal of the besotted young peasant. The pair reaffirmed their love in a haunting duet and planned to run away that night. However, Tonio overheard their conversation and betrayed Nedda to her husband. Alone, Canio gives in to his obsessive despair; he must play the clown even though his heart is breaking. Jose Cura sang a compelling ‘Vesti La Guibba’ (Put on the costume and powder your face) as the curtain fell on the melodrama at the end of Act 1.
After a lush, romantic Overture, Act 2 opened with the travelling theatre ready to perform to the assembled villagers: a play-within a play-within the opera. Another very busy scene, with 134 characters on stage ensued, detracting somewhat from the soloists. It was superficially comic and slapstick, with Arlecchino (played by Beppe), sung delightfully by character-singer, tenor Francesco Pittari, serenading Nedda in ‘O Colombina’. They plot to poison Columbine’s husband, Pagliaccio, played of course by Canio, so that Art can mirror Life in a twist which recalled Hamlet’s play within a play, “The Mouse Trap”. Tonio as Taddeo, a malicious hunchbacked fool, ignited Canio’s jealousy again, which enthralled the ‘audience’ by its realism. Nedda tried to continue with her parody-role until Canio snapped. In a fit of rage, he stabbed Nedda and with her dying breath Nedda called Silvio for help, thus giving away his identity, and he too was stabbed.
The opera ended abruptly on that tragic note, but luckily for Oman the acrobats appeared in the auditorium and performed some circus buffoonery, walking on the backs of seats and riding unicycles. They moved to the busy foyer where they continued their antics for a full half-hour, in an impromptu Act 3.