Pagliacci punk: Augusta Opera explores short-lived realist movement

If all the world was a stage in the 1500s in Shakespeare’s England, by 1892 Europe had enough of the pageantry of formal theatrics and towering wigs.

Tired of rehashing practices and premises to aging audiences, fresh-voiced composers stifled by rigid expectations rebelled. Out of the “verismo” movement — a brief but intense realist push by young European musicians to destroy artifice in their art form — came works like the Augusta Opera’s newest presentation, “Pagliacci” (“Players”), by Ruggero Leoncavallo.

The players in the title are actors in a commedia del arte who are embroiled in a messy love triangle between Canio (Marcos Aguiar), his wife Nedda (Diane Alexander) and her lover Silvio (Corey McKern). Todd Thomas plays the hunchbacked Tonio and Les Reagan, managing director for the Augusta Opera, will make a special appearance as Beppe.

Reagan breaks the story down in simple terms: “It’s the traditional husband betrayal.” And, indeed, the love triangle is both a classic and a modern dramatic device.

“It’s over 100 years old, but human nature doesn’t change,” laughed John Hoomes, stage director for the production.

What sets this play apart is that the composer intentionally blurred the line between audience and the actors.

Beginning with the prologue in which Tonio addresses the audience directly, and ending with the twist of the knife by a man gone mad, the play breaks what is traditionally known as “the fourth wall,” the invisible wall on stage that separates the audience from the actors.

“What is real and what is not real?” Hoomes posed. And that uncertainty was the source of much discomfort from audiences who viewed the opera during its original inception. The play that the pagliacci perform, “Commedia,” also details the story of a cuckolded husband. The similarities between fact and fiction — once Nedda’s infidelity is, of course, revealed — drive Canio to madness with unintended consequences.

But jealousy and murder are no new themes to the dramatic arts. It was, instead, the techniques employed by the writer that scandalized older opera goers at the play’s debut. The style also won instant admiration from younger fans. It is, in fact, the only play by its composer that is still in wide rotation among opera houses, mostly because of what Hoomes termed its “punk” sensibilities.

“Leoncavallo put it in your face,” he said, in a short but pointed attack on the conventions of comedy and tragedy in the arts in 19th-century Europe.

While “Pagliacci” might be the 14th most performed opera in North America, it has been 20 years since the Augusta Opera last staged it. But the tenor aria that made singer Enrico Caruso famous, “Recitar!… Vesti la giubba” (“To perform! Put on the costume”), will be familiar to many attendants. Besides being one of the most famous tenor arias in opera history — it was the first recording to sell a million copies in America — it was also used in a Rice Krispies commercial some years ago.

Imperial Theatre
Friday and Saturday, May 16-17
8 p.m.
Tickets $15-49


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