Doubleheader Sweep: With Il tabarro and Pagliacci, Opera Theatre registers a rout

Jun 6, 2013 at 4:00 am

Nowadays we don't think of opera as popular music. But the first million-selling record of all time was the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso's recording of an aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo's classic Italian opera, Pagliacci. That was in 1907. Pagliacci has been a touchstone of Western culture ever since, referred to in everything from magazine ads and Bugs Bunny cartoons to a Seinfeld episode. This month Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) gives us a chance to experience the real thing.

Pagliacci (The Clowns), an efficient two-act opera, is well paired with Giacomo Puccini's Il tabarro (The Cloak), a much-less-commonly performed, almost terse, one-act work. Tabarro, the opener, is a grim tale of dashed hope, while Pagliacci is a visually surreal swirl of a show within a show. It's like going to a doubleheader at Busch and getting a classic pitchers' duel in game one, followed by a slugfest in the nightcap. Together they spin a scintillating night of musical theater.

Ron Daniels, Riccardo Hernandez and Emily Rebholz are director, set designer and costumer, respectively, for both. The matchup gives them a lot to work with. While their stories feature love, betrayal and revenge, the holy trinity of opera plots, the settings of these tales are deeply different. Il tabarro is about dockworkers, while Pagliacci takes place in a commedia dell'arte theater company. For the Puccini, the designers set these beaten-down, impoverished workers on a tight, tough, waterfront of muted grays and dark negative spaces. Set and costumes are a moody wash of black, gray and dusty not-quite-white. The bloody, garish reds and stark, crisp, black-and-white chosen for the inside-showbiz setting of Pagliacci also succeeds, bouncing its surrealist feel against the hard, dire, atmosphere of Il tabarro.

The operas share singers in the primary male roles. Baritone Tim Mix and tenors Matthew DiBattista and Robert Brubaker get to show their acting range. Mix's beautiful and solid turn as Michele, the brooding, troubled barge owner, is the cornerstone performance in Il tabarro. It contrasts superbly with his edgy, off-kilter take on the mercurial and devilish hunchback, Tonio, in the nightcap.

Brubaker ranges from virile, young cuckolder to aging cuckold over the course of the evening, carefully underplaying the stolid stevedore, Luigi, in the first and skillfully drawing the contradictions and their tragic consequences in the character of Canio, head of the theater troupe, in the second.

DeBattista has less to work with, as his characters aren't fully fleshed out in these short pieces. He does well with what he's given, though, convincing in his acting and dead-on in his singing.

Emily Pulley and Kelly Kaduce are the featured sopranos in these shows. Making her OTSL debut as Giorgetta, Michele's unfaithful wife, in Il Tabarro, Pulley melds vivid believability with direct and honest singing. She can go from delicately plaintive to deeply troubled and succeeds in building a subtle picture of a conflicted soul in a very short time.

Kelly Kaduce's performance as Nedda, Canio's wife, in Pagliacci, is the highlight of the evening. OTSL regulars are familiar with Kaduce's wide range. Her first performance with the company was a luminous one, as the naive Sister Angelica in the one-act of the same name; likewise, none who saw it will ever forget her lurid title turn in Salome. Here she has to be both brazen and vulnerable as an abused wife who is scheming her way out of a loveless marriage. And in the play within Pagliacci, Kaduce must begin as a bawdy comedian and slowly evolve into the tragic victim of both her own feckless scheming and her husband's rage. She pulls it all off flawlessly.

Kaduce's singing combines easily with her acting. Both flow naturally from her character and brighten or deepen as that character's situation evolves. Kaduce's voice has taken on darker hues over the years, and she knows how to paint with them.

This is an excellent night of musical theater; one that will fully satisfy seasoned opera fans and newcomers alike. You get a superbly wrought rendition of a classic by a one-hit wonder and a rare look at a gem by a master craftsman.