Have a friend with reservations about opera or for whom the art form is anathema? Run, don’t walk, to the Boston Lyric Opera’s immersive, site-specific, uncut production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Sets, costumes, staging, acting, translation and the installation overall add up to a concept which, for the most part, respects the spirit of original while casting it in an entirely contemporary light and confers on the action a dramatic immediacy hard to achieve in a traditional opera house.

Tobias Greenhalgh (Silvio) and Lauren Michelle (Nedda) © Liza Voll
Tobias Greenhalgh (Silvio) and Lauren Michelle (Nedda)
© Liza Voll

The season before last, BLO’s production team transformed the Steriti Rink into a 1950’s New York City nightclub for Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. For Pagliacci, David Lefkowich creates a fairground populated by various clowns (some firing off bubble guns), jugglers, young gymnasts, men and women on stilts, two aerialists threading themselves through and around revolving hoops, a magician, an energy reader, arcade games and booths selling refreshments (including a circus-themed brand of Cabernet). Several food trucks in the parking lot offer more hearty fare with picnic tables available both inside and out, overlooking the harbor. A different local chorus takes to a small stage at each performance. Saturday evening it was the Cambridge Chinese Choral Society presenting two selections: a traditional Chinese folksong and Golden Ale by John Rutter. A striped curtain, looking like the side of a big top tent, divides the fairground from the performance space. Behind it, the chorus can be heard, for a time, rehearsing to piano accompaniment. At three loud reports and the pop of a bladder full of confetti, clowns pull aside the tent flaps to seat the audience. Four rows fan out in a semi-circle in front of the small, round stage. The rest of the seating rises stadium style behind them with the orchestra tightly packed behind the stage. The chorus, in contemporary street clothes, sings mostly from the aisles with some sometimes sitting in the audience. The two limber aerialists return and take to the silks for the orchestral introduction and intermezzo.

Michael Mayes (Tonio) © Liza Voll
Michael Mayes (Tonio)
© Liza Voll

Like Iago and Hamlet, Tonio is not simply a character, but one who determines the plot and directs the narrative, dissembling (playing other roles) in order to do so. He even uses a play-within-the play as a vehicle for his revenge. In this production, he is not deformed, though his complexion is blotchy and his make-up also suggests some scarring, Instead, he is a robust and vital man. He comes on for the prologue whip in hand, dressed as a ringmaster (whether intentional or not, anyone familiar with Berg’s Lulu cannot fail to see an analogy), but with an odd, high, Elizabethan-style neck ruff spangled with stars. Michael Mayes’ oaky baritone dominated the action, taking the audience into his confidence, but successfully hinting at the undercurrent of rage which motivates and eventually swamps his character. “Incominciate!,” becomes, “Let’s start the circus!,” in Bill Banks-Jones’ vernacular translation and the opera proper begins.

Rafael Rojas (Canio) © Liza Voll
Rafael Rojas (Canio)
© Liza Voll

Neither singers nor orchestra were favored by the dry acoustic, but both coped as best they could. Though no announcement of Rafael Rojas recovering from a throat infection was made, as it had been the previous evening, his voice, acoustics aside, still sounded unusually tight and gravelly. Fortunately, it gradually opened and warmed. Despite a few further rough patches, his Canio was a fiery portrayal of someone immolated by his own jealousy. Nedda, the opera’s most layered character, requires a skilled actress as well as singer. BLO was fortunate to have both in Lauren Michelle. She shifted smoothly in the commedia between the different voices of the chirpy, irreverent Colombina (“Why so stricken? Where’s my frickin’ chicken?”) and the increasingly terrified Nedda. Her timbre warmed to match Tobias Greenhalgh’s ardent Silvio, professorial in eyeglasses, grey crewneck sweater and slacks. Their love duet was the only passage in the original Italian (a sly reference to the tired trope of Italian being “the language of love” ?). Beppe is the welcome eye in this storm of emotions. Omar Najmi with a supple, clear, high tenor and equally supple body language sang and clowned adeptly. As Leoncavallo intended, Tonio delivers the final line, cackling maniacally to a fusillade of flashing lights and panning spots.

Acoustics drained most of the sap and many of the colors in Leoncavallo’s orchestration, but David Angus compensated with a keen sense of pacing and dramatic tension. His sensitive accompaniment of Rojas further suggested the tenor was still indisposed.

Traditionalists will likely be appalled by Banks-Jones’ sometimes very free translation with its dominant street-talk inflections, but it serves this production well. It further places the action within our current reality, with its #MeToo focus on sexual harassment, femicide and toxic masculinity, in a near perfect updating and rejuvenation of an old warhorse.

****1