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Pagliacci Power

Maureen Magill & Nmon Ford-Livene
Love on the Run: Nedda (Maureen Magill) and Silvio (Nmon Ford-Livene) snatch a moment together before the inevitable tragedy.

Photo by Scott Hinrichs

Opera San José's double bill packs one knockout production

By Philip Collins

IT'S DIFFICULT to imagine that anyone could've left Montgomery Theater last weekend unconvinced of the greatness of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Opera San José's guest stage director Lillian Garrett-Groag's mindful, sexy and highly imaginative revival of this two-act verismo classic brings to life the work's ironies with poignancy; its turbulences with frightening realism; and its humanity with fullness.

Likewise, Barbara Day Turner's musical direction vividly accounts for the score's virtues. The orchestration, scaled-down to suit the company's modest 26-member orchestra, honors the original's brilliance and sensuality with only negligible sacrifices in the string department. The playing is inspired and polished when it counts, particularly Lucinda Breed's beautifully rendered cello solos in Act I.

Pagliacci dominates a double bill with Poulenc's troublesome La Voix Humaine, a monodrama for mezzo-soprano and telephone receiver. The work is a tour de force for the soloist; on Sunday, the role was sung with steadfast aplomb by Jeanette Blakeney.

Pagliacci's power, on the other hand, rests upon the dynamicism of human interaction, and Garrett-Groag's dramatic savvy brings the work's characters, and their relationships, into crystalline relief. To the greatest of detail in matters of blocking, costuming, set and orchestral support, the production hums with rapport and intrigue. Garrett-Groag elicited outstanding dramatic work from Sunday's cast--the second of two alternating lineups--making use of each scene and song to the utmost.

The comedia play-within-a-play performed by Canio's traveling troupe was infused with double-entendres and risqué delights, finessed by the players with a consistency of style that was refreshing against the opera's mainstay realism. Garrett-Groag's insertion of a synoptic pantomime of the story, performed by the comedia mimes during the overture, offered a clue as to the director's acute interest in physical expression.

In the opera proper--a tale of possessive love, infidelity and revenge--movement continued to play an arresting role in the articulation of character. Each player's moves were telling. The hunchback Tonio's intermittent tippy-toe crosses while eavesdropping on the rendezvous between Silvio and Canio's wife, Nedda, conveyed how much he relished the prospects of vengeance. From the outset, the measured swagger of the dangerously jealous Canio hinted at weaknesses within, and Silvio and Nedda's physical chemistry was hot enough to burn holes in the scenery.

Garrett-Groag's updating of the work to the early 1930s enlivened the enterprise markedly. The slit-eyed fascist blackshirts who linger about in all but the most intimate scenes added a degree of menace, and the tie-in of having Silvio be one of them boosted the inherent tensions appreciably.

Baritone Brian Carter proved a captivating Tonio, investing one of opera's most despicable and pathetic characters with credible nuances--snorting with rapture while being patted by Nedda, spitting like a snapping turtle upon her rebuke. When he pleads in radiant, full voice, "So ben che difforme, contorto son io" ("I know that you hate me and laugh in derision"), one can't help but empathize.

As Nedda, Maureen Magill delivered an endearing performance; dramatically sound, if somewhat vocally constrained at first. Her opening aria, "Oh! Che volo d' augelli" ("Ah, ye beautiful songbirds") was fettered by a tight vibrato that fluttered like hummingbird wings and veered sharply. Once given over to passion--in her confrontations with Tonio, and then in blissful complicity with Silvio--Magill's voice opened up to reveal a lovely, full-toned instrument.

Nmon Ford-Livene was a formidable presence as Silvio. With riveting clarity, his singing served passion and exactitude. Swearing his allegiance to Nedda in song, he seemed impervious to even Canio's knife, so galvanized was his delivery.

But Canio, of course, is not to be stopped from exacting his vengeance. Tenor Richard Nickol balanced the troupe leader's machismo facade and faltering self-confidence with finesse. The emotional plays between vulnerability and rage developed from the opening scene to the famous "Vesti la Giubba" aria and subsequent cathartic killings via a gripping trajectory that grows naturally out of the opera's dramatic structure.

As the troubadour Beppe, Joseph Meyers foiled the work's central intensities with spontaneous wiles and a beguiling tenor voice. Garrett-Groag's appetite for humor rubbed off contagiously where warranted, giving the show a richness in emotional tones that bears out Tonio's promise in the prologue that the story Pagliacci tells of is indeed true to life.

And what gratifying choral work, too--harmoniously voiced and animated by discrete individualities. For once, a populace that doesn't behave like an amoeba.

Pagliacci/La Voix Humaine play Nov.14­16, 19, 21, 23 at 8pm and Nov. 17, 24 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $33­$43. (408/437-4450)

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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