Opera is not known for its subtlety, but Pagliacci might be the least subtle of them all. It's also one of the most fun.
Not that it isn't tragic. Pagliacci is super tragic. There are cheating spouses, crazy hunchbacks making passes at women, whips, creepy clown makeup, the term "vile harlot," and of course, significant stabbing.
Pity whoever needs more to be entertained. St. Petersburg Opera Company's production of Leoncavallo's Italian opera hits a perfect balance of buffoonery and drama, delivered with dynamite vocal work and lush instrumentation from the orchestra.
Pagliacci is told in the verismo style, which came in response to audiences wanting stories about real people, not just royalty. "We're flesh and bone, breathing as you do," a clown sings. It's relatively short for opera, with a brief prologue and two acts buoyed by direct, gut-punching arias.
In the first act, a troupe of clowns rolls into town to put on a show. Canio, the lead clown, is the jealous type who warns what could happen if his wife, Nedda, messes around. Nedda has some options in both Tonio, the hunchback fool, and Silvio, the stud. It gets messy.
In the second act, the clowns put on their play, which happens to be about a wife cheating on her husband. The staging here by Melissa Misener is smart, tight and rife with comedy. When the play starts to blur truth and fiction, the townspeople are naively thrilled by the realism. Opera aficionados will be eager to see which character gets to deliver the famous final line.
The talent is top-tier, with all leads making debuts with St. Petersburg Opera. Kristin Vogel as Nedda has a clarion soprano that rings out when she sings of wanting to be free like the birds. Neil Nelson comically commits to Tonio, hammering his vocals with impressive strength.
Adam Klein shows dark nuance as lead clown Canio. He's a bedraggled figure on the brink, and he delivers the moment you'll keep thinking about later — the tenor aria Vesti la giubba. It means "put on the costume," a desperate lament that Canio must be a clown while being so tormented inside. You know this aria, even if you don't think you do.
Since Pagliacci is short, it often gets paired with Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana. St. Petersburg Opera maestro Mark Sforzini should be commended for trying something different with his Neapolitan Festival, a modern-day story with Neapolitan songs performed before the opera. It's confusing at first, why people are standing on stage texting and hanging around in track suits. Consult the program for some help with the story, and it will make sense.
It was an entertaining enough first act. But Pagliacci is so strong, maybe it's fine to let it live on its own, without a warmup juggler.
Contact Stephanie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.