Seriously, it really was “reimagined.” The Atlanta Opera staged Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci with live performers, a live orchestra and – most notably – a live audience of about 350, all of whom were masked. This is no simple task in the time of Covid-19, but it was a smashing success, almost to the point of being too good to be true.

Reginald Smith Jr (Tonio)
© Rafterman

The performance took place in a large red and blue circus tent with open sides permitting air to flow through during the performance. Patrons were seated in groups of four, spread a safe social distance from each other. The floor was covered with mulch and the tent featured strings of overhead lights establishing the opera’s circus theme. Three large video screens featured above each side of the stage to display surtitles. The Atlanta Opera Chorus pre-recorded its contributions, and the individual choristers’ videos were displayed on the screens. Finally, the smallish stage had three transparent booths where the main singers could sing without masks. These booths were moved around to accommodate the opera’s plot. The orchestra played in a tent behind the stage, reduced in size and augmented with what sounded like an electronic piano. In the opera-within-an-opera scene, soprano Megan Marino also played a pianica, adding accordion-like color to the music.

The evening began with a brief introduction by Tomer Zvulun, Atlanta Opera’s artistic director. He gave a brief history of the planning that went into making the production as safe as possible, and he also recounted that some of the smaller support tents were recently blown over and damaged by Hurricane Zeta, which dumped wind and rain on the Atlanta area just 36 hours earlier.

Reginald Smith Jr (Tonio) and Richard Trey Smagur (Canio)
© Rafterman

The performance began with jugglers and clowns happily dancing and twirling in a small pit area in front of the stage. One of the dancers used a mobile phone to video the actors on stage, which was displayed on the video screens. The odd perspective of the video added a slightly nightmarish quality to the actors' faces. Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr appeared in one of the booths to provide welcome and foreshadow the story.  He portrayed the misshapen Tonio, who is secretly in love with the beautiful and desirable Nedda. Tenor Richard Trey Samgur, sang Canio (Nedda’s husband) in another booth, looking pale and drawn, breathing from an oxygen tank. He has contracted Covid-19. Nedda, sung by soprano Talise Trevigne, taunts and teases Tonio, but is passionate and alluring when her lover Silvio (baritone Jospeh Lattanzi) calls her on her mobile phone. When her dalliance is unmasked, she becomes defiant and resigned. 

The singers were astonishingly good, as they had to negotiate putting on, and singing through, a mask when outside of their respective booths. Their acting was equally good, given the challenges of having to be in the throes of passion while standing six feet apart! When Canio was reflecting on his happier days with Nedda, his pre-recorded reverie appeared on the video screens. This was remarkably effective, the video edited to imply physical closeness, which was not actually possible given public health restrictions. In the final act, large articulated paper puppets were used to do what the stage actors could not because of safety issues.

Atlanta Opera's Pagliacci
© Ken Howard

The spare scenery was effective in helping to establish the circus-like atmosphere through effective use of both color and design. The sound engineering was excellent and the microphoned, masked voices were surprisingly realistic and intelligible. There was some awkwardness moving from booth to stage and back again, but the singers seemed quite comfortable with it.

Zvulun observed that Atlanta Opera was one of the few companies in the United States to present a live performance during the pandemic. Every detail of the evening was attended to, even down to the red blankets handed to patrons to provide protection from the cold evening temperatures. Atlanta Opera has pulled off a great artistic and logistical success while adhering to public health requirements. It was a triumph for a company whose tagline is “Building the major international opera company Atlanta deserves”.