In the past couple of years the Boston Lyric Opera has taken advantage of its lack of a permanent home to utilize unusual but highly appropriate venues.
This past May they staged their compelling production of Poul Ruders' opera A Handmaid's Tale in Harvard's basketball pavilion, with the added immediacy that the pavilion itself is the setting for scenes from the novel and the opera. The company has also been using a public skating rink in Boston's North End, DCR Steriti Memorial Rink, since 2016 as a rehearsal space. In May of 2018 BLO presented a Bernstein double bill of Trouble in Tahiti and Arias & Barcarolles at the Rink.
Now they have turned the rink into a fairgrounds with a visiting circus, complete with food trucks, acrobats and carnival games as a setting for their production of Leoncavallo's verismo opera Pagliacci. A fairgrounds, too, is an appropriate setting for an opera about a traveling troupe of commedia del arte performers. They bring their comic entertainment to a small town without much other entertainment, so everyone eagerly anticipates the show and all of the attractions which precede it. They stage a play within the play in which a comically exaggerated story about a jealous husband and unfaithful wife are acted by just such a couple, with tragic consequences. The chorus sing their reactions to what is being enacted in front of them, and by extension, we the audience are part of that chorus, reacting with laughter and applause and tears. All three are in abundance at this production.
The circus atmosphere extends from the pre-show carnival space, where the principal attractions are young women performing on suspended hoops and bars. They are members of a local organization called Circus Up, and their director, aerialist Leah Abel provides a spectacular addition to the overture, climbing silk streamers to create acrobatic poses and moves. She is joined by Molly Baechtold to do the same for the intermezzo which follows the famous aria “Vesti la giubba.”
In this production the famous aria (and almost everything else) is sung in English, which is a little startling for those who are familiar with the original Italian, but no less powerful in expressing the heartbreak of Canio, after he has discovered his wife's infidelity and the knowledge that his marriage is over. The clown of the title is Canio, sung by Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas, who has been seen before at BLO as Werther, Alfredo and Pinkerton. In Pagliacci he is the leader of the troupe rousing the audience to return for a performance “an hour before sunset,” turning quickly into the aggrieved husband defending his honor.
His wife Nedda is sung by Lauren Michelle, a prize winner at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, at the Lotte Lenya Competition and at the Marcello Giordani International Vocal Competition, making an auspicious BLO debut.
Adding to this mix is Tonio, who has his own passion for Nedda, and seeks revenge after she rejects him and he discovers that she is willing to run away with Silvio, her lover from the town. Michael Mayes, who made his BLO debut as Rigoletto, yet another clown, dresses as the ringmaster for Tonio's prologue, reminding us that actors are people as well as performers, with real emotions and passions, like the ones they play onstage. The circus atmosphere is carried out with action taking place all around us. The chorus spreads through the aisles, heightening the sense of the audience being at the actual events. Silvio takes his place in a seat in the house, as the character would until he sees his lover threatened onstage.
All of this is sung by a strong, committed cast, both in the realistic backstage scenes and in the comically exaggerated play within the play. They are supported by fine playing from the BLO orchestra. A skating rink is a nontraditional performing venue, but the BLO has made spectacular use of it. Kudos to conductor David Angus, stage director David Lefkowich and the rest of the production team.
In May BLO returns to the DCR Steriti Rink to turn it into ancient Egypt for their production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. (Will the Nile freeze over?). And in between they will use two more conventional stages: The Emerson Paramount in November for the new opera Fellow Travelers by Gregory Spears, and The Emerson Cutler Majestic in March for Bellini’s Norma.