Tears of a clown

Members of the “Pagliacci” cast (from left): Tenor Bradley Schuller, soprano Elyse Anne Kakacek and baritone Robert Morrissey.
Members of the “Pagliacci” cast (from left): Tenor Bradley Schuller, soprano Elyse Anne Kakacek and baritone Robert Morrissey.

Classical Music Critic

Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” is a cornerstone of operatic verismo, a compact powerhouse of human emotion and tragedy, clocking in at about 70 minutes. Because it’s short, it’s nearly always placed on a double-bill, but for their inaugural production, Chicago’s newest opera company, The Cobalt Opera, chose to let “Pagliacci” stand alone.

This was a stripped down, bare-bones production: a chorus of but nine singers, solo piano accompaniment without the composer’s musical introduction and an intermission in place of the intermezzo, no sets beyond a few chairs and a bench, sparse use of props, and no jugglers, stilts or big floppy shoes. The venue was the relatively modest Covenant Presbyterian Church on the North Side of Chicago, a structure with a towering ceiling above the alter and hard, narrow pews.

The result was a spare yet honest depiction of a humble clown whose livelihood depends on his comic depiction of a cuckolded husband who finds that in real life such a humiliation propels him to double murder.

The five solo roles were performed by a group of singers who ably conveyed the claustrophobia of living life at the center of attention.

As Canio, the clown who leads the troupe and harbors a tumultuous love for his wife Nedda, tenor Bradley Schuller is best at those expansive moments where he’s the center of the attention in the village. His portrayal would have benefited from more depth in his singing and more detail in his emotion. In the justly famous “Vesti la guibba” he was solely one dark color of anguish throughout and in the climactic lead up to Nedda’s murder he was a single species of anger, albeit intense.

Soprano Elyse Anne Kakacek gave Nedda a pretty voice and a pleasing ability to navigate the stage. She was particularly fine in the story-within-a-story displaying marionette-like movement emphasizing how she was stuck in her role in life. She’s a young singer with vocal heft who sometimes forgets less is more.

Baritone Robert Morrissey set things in motion (with only a few bars from the piano as introduction) with Tonio’s prologue warning the audience what is to come. He marvelously set the table with a multi-faceted performance, first with the comfortable dispatch of simple declamatory singing and then moving seamlessly into the dramatic sections which presage the music and story to follow. Troublemaker Tonio ensures tragedy by betraying Nedda to Canio, after Nedda rejects Tonio’s crude sexual advances. Morrissey imbued his splendid performance with angry masculinity, malevolent jealousy and dark comedy.

In the two smaller roles, tenor Leslie Hill is a lyrical Peppe and baritone Mario Aivazian is rather cool as Nedda’s real love, Silvio.

Steven Haschke (“Maestro Steve” at several spots in the program) is the founder, artistic director and conductor of Cobalt Opera. He presided over a musically pleasing performance in a challenging environment. The church has incredible reverberation, which lent the small chorus a glorious choral sound. But that could not make up for the lack of balance, with the women always much louder than the men and the basses nearly always inaudible. It also rendered the piano accompaniment by Charis Buell, through no fault of her own, very muddy at times.

This was stage director Alicia Queen’s opera debut and her theater experience was in evidence. She found ways to employ the church, rather than merely work around it. My only real quibbles with the stage direction concern player placement. The chorus serves as the audience at the end of the opera and they sat on the floor in front of the comedy “stage,” thus terribly obscuring the view of the real audience. And too much of the love scene between Nedda and Silvio was as far downstage as possible, making their singing in that cavernous space sound indistinct and far away, rather than intimate and close.

This latter complaint is really a general one. This creditable performance lacks the really quiet moments — both in volume and in dramatic sense it rarely fell below mezzo forte. It is this kind of added detail I’ll look forward to in future productions of the Cobalt Opera.