Opera Roanoke began its 2019-20 season on Friday night at the Jefferson Center with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” before an audience of about 400.
Steven White conducted the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, and the chorus was the Roanoke College A Cappella Choir, prepared well by their regular director Jeffrey Sandborg.
The opera was presented in a “staged concert performance.” This meant that the principal singers moved around fairly easily at the front of the stage, although there was no scenery and a minimal use of props. The orchestra was situated on the stage and not in the pit. Above the musicians surtitles were projected, translating the sung Italian text into English.
From the beginning, the Roanoke Symphony established itself as a leading protagonist. White exhibited his great experience as an operatic conductor, coaxing out of the players a rich sound with a variety of textures and timbres that created a strong reinforcement of the feelings expressed by the major characters.
The story itself is a simple one of an unfaithful wife and a husband who is out for revenge on her lover. Here the drama was well served by the principal singers. Clay Hilley as Canio, the chief clown, displayed a strong and heroic presence with a superbly resonant tenor voice. His aria “Vesti la giubba” at the end of the first act was a suitably high point, both vocally and emotionally.
In the role of Nedda, Sara Duchovnay gave a nuanced portrait of an unhappy woman, visibly passionate with her lover, and disdainful with her jealous spouse. Her high notes rang out with ease at the swelling climaxes in both her first act aria and in her love duet with Silvio.
Luis Alejandro Orozco, a promising young baritone from Texas, provided an attractive stage presence and a well-produced lyrical sound as the lover Silvio. Corey Crider as the malevolent Tonio painted a complex character, full of rage as well as irony.
The second act began with a ravishing intermezzo played by the orchestra.
The chorus produced impressive full-throated sounds as the villagers. Then the commedia dell’arte “play within the play” allowed the principals to further show their acting abilities. Here they donned actual costumes. Tenor Chris Carr sang Beppe/Harlequin’s aria quite effectively with honeyed tone and clear diction. But the real thrill came at the end when Hilley as a completely demented Canio finally erupted with uncontrollable anger to kill both Nedda and Silvio.
If you like your operas to last under two hours (with intermission), and a story that packs an emotional wallop, then this production is highly recommended for you.
Timothy Gaylard is Professor of Music at Washington and Lee University