Picture a small town in the south (southern Italy in the 1950s, as it happens) where people talk slow and not much happens until the sun goes down and the church bells ring. (Think Faulkner, Song of the South, Porgy and Bess.) Then a travelling circus comes to town, a whole troupe of clowns (those irrespressible pagliacci), squeezed into a real clown car, a tiny black Fiat 500. You can guess what happens next: sex, jealousy, violence and death.
We're going to hear the exciting Gold Cast at the end of the run, with superstar tenor Antonello Palombi as Pagliacci, the divine Nuccia Focile as Nedda and Gordon Hawkins (a standout last year in the title role of Macbeth as Tonio.
This weekend, with conductor Dean Williamson leading a talented Silver Cast, the smoothest singing came from Morgan Smith, who had impressed us in the title role of Don Giovanni last year. He makes a convincing hunk as Silvio, the local pretty-boy who catches Nedda's eye.
The lecherous Tonio, whose advances Nedda spurns, overhears the two lovers planning to run away together and reports the news to Canio, knowing that Canio's jealousy will provoke disaster. As he suits up for the play (singing Vesti la giubba, whose recording by Caruso became the first opera disc to sell a million copies), Canio expresses the clown's classic anguish: to make people laugh even as his own heart is breaking.
By the time the curtain falls, on the line (spoken by Tonio in this production), La commedia è finita, Canio is a mental wreck, having stabbed both Nedda and Silvio. Show's over, folks. Wasn't a comedy at all.
One reservation, the schtick with the acrobats (imported from California for the dream sequence at the opening of the second half of the show): no disrespect, but we think our home-grown Circus Contraption does that stuff better.
Seattle Opera presents Pagliacci at McCaw Hall, through Jan. 26. Tickets online or 206-389-7676.
Seattle Opera photo by Rosarii Lynch