It is often said that Giuseppe Verdi considered the villain in Othello so instrumental to the story that he seriously considered changing the title of his opera to Iago. And while modern opera directors don’t quite have the power to do that, they can obviously be quite instrumental in tilting the focus of a production to a different character with subtle, even small touches. San Diego Opera’s season-opening production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci might as well have been retitled Tonio. Vocally and dramatically, that is where the performance began and ended.

To his credit, director Andrew Sinclair made his vision persuasive. Tonio’s prologue was delivered with no joviality and his actions all seemed born out of his lust for Nedda. The hunchback was the enabler to the alcoholic Canio’s gruesome murder, placing the knife in the enraged clown’s hand. And after the deed was done and Canio abruptly kills himself, the final line was left to the sardonic facilitator to gloat over the gruesome scene he himself set in motion.

Sinclair’s Canio had no shred of dignity or charisma. A hungover alcoholic from the very beginning, this was a character from severely depressed circumstances. While that made his wife’s betrayal more understandable, particularly given the rage her husband was quick to fly into, it made the magnetism of his character mystifying and his downward spiral more predictable and less shocking than usual. What was shocking was the extent of Tonio’s malevolence, which shifts the story to being more of an elaborate mass murder.

Thankfully, Stephen Powell as Tonio had the vocal resources to back up the weight placed on his character’s performance. While not possessing a stentorian lower register, Powell has a secure instrument that blossomed through the end of the prologue with thrilling high notes. He was a subtle actor but an involved one, his character menacing and formidable. The richness of Powell’s voice is compelling and he sang with authority. Unfortunately, his co-stars were not as vocally endearing or powerful.

Frank Poretta’s Canio was sung with a whiteness, missing a lot of core. There were occasionally balance problems with the orchestra and while he had technically had the high notes that make this part so exciting, they were underwhelming. It was a voice that showed wear. To his credit, Poretta poured it all out onstage in “Vesti la giubba”, but his histrionics failed to elevate the performance. Canio’s unfaithful wife, Nedda, was performed by Romanian soprano Adina Nitescu, another singer whose voice has probably seen more youthful days. While Nitescu performed with fire, her vocal powers scarcely matched. Nedda’s “Stridono lassù” failed to enchant as her midrange was muffled compared to her overwhelming, even harsh, upper register that couldn’t sustain phrases satisfactorily. She was an effective foil in the second part as Columbina, but there was vocally very little that fit the part.

Joel Sorensen’s Beppe was adroit and funny as Arlecchino. David Adam Moore’s Silvio was dramatically inoffensive but vocally bland, lacking seductiveness in his voice.

Yves Abel led an unidiomatic reading from the pit. The Italiante line and richness of sound were missing from the orchestra, who kept up respectfully. The chorus sang with color, acting well during their extended scenes.

While the period production was attractive and Sinclair’s vision intriguing, the vocal goods were severely lacking on stage Saturday evening. For an opera like Pagliacci where the vocal writing of the characters is so infused with who the characters are dramatically, it is a shame to be missing exceptional voices in the two stars. The notes were there, but this was an unsatisfying Pagliacci. A director can only do so much.