Richard Trey Smagur as Canio in The Atlanta Opera's recently released video of "Pagliacci." (credit: Felipe Barral)

Review: Verismo opera “Pagliacci” in a fascinating rendering, video by The Atlanta Opera

The Atlanta Opera
Leoncavallo: Pagliacci

(2021 video produced from the company’s “Big Tent| live performance series, October 22 — November 15. 2020)
Cast: Reginald Smith Jr. (Tonio), Richard Trey Smagur (Canio), Talise Trevigne (Nedda),Joseph Lattanzi (Silvio), Megan Marino (Beppe).
Creative: Rolando Salazar, conductor; Tomer Zvulun, stage director; Felipe Barral, videographer & video editor;  Julia Noulin-Merat, set designer; Joanna Schmink, costume designer; Ben Rawson, lighting designer.

Giorgio Koukl | 03 FEB 2021

Mr. Tomer Zvulun, as general and artisti cdirector of The Atlanta Opera, has chosen a very unusual approach, in order to comply with all the new rules of social distancing due to the pandemics and to be able to resume theater and opera productions despite all the existing limits. The idea of open space, in this case a circus tent, conducted quite naturally to a choice of Ruggiero Leoncavallo and his verismo opera Pagliacci. Even if not always regarded as the first verismo opera by the musicologists, it is between Cavalleria rusticana and Tosca one of the hot candidates to this title.

Leoncavallo, who used to live for long periods of his life in southern Switzerland started working on Pagliacci in a small village called Vacallo, near the Italian border. He created the text and the music remembering a dramatic event he saw as a youngster in South Italy: a love triangle finished with an assassination which Leoncavallo’s father as a judge was called to put on trial. In this story only five characters, Beppe, Tonio, Canio, Nedda and Silvio are involved. The villagers, in the opera, transformed to a chorus, briefly interact. Such small cast and the relative simplicity of the plot were beneficial to a production outside of the usual Atlanta Opera stage, where the acoustics, the limited technical possibilities, and the space for the public would certainly not allow, lets say, Aida.


Rolando Salazar was conducting a drastically reduced orchestra, mainly piano and a few other instruments and I have to say that, after a while, where I missed bitterly the refinement of Leoncavallo’s original instrumentation, I finished following the plot without even noticing the difference. For the person who has produced this score reduction miracle, all my praise.

The voices of Megan Marino, Reginald Smith jr., Richard Trey Smagur, Talise Trevigne and Joseph Lattanzi were really well chosen and despite all the face mask limitations still well captured and expressive. Their quality was from very good to excellent, with a special mention for Mr. Lattanzi, whose pronunciation of Italian language was the most comprehensive. Usually opera singers, at least here in Europe, are not great actors, but even in this sense the Atlanta cast was very good, considering that I saw the video version which gives far more details than a viewer can catch from his place in the audience. Let me place here a special credit to Mr. Smith for his expressive rendering of Tonio.

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With such good elements in hand it would be quite natural to get excellent results. Unfortunately these are not normal times and the COVID limitations came into place. What would have been the end of any theatrical company was instead used as a chance to do things differently. This is what made the difference between just another opera, sometimes boring and with a director trying to save the evening with provocations of extra musical or theatrical world (a thing we have got far too much in Europe lately) and the Atlanta production – witty, intelligent and creative in solutions. As I understood the echo of this production is now present in many other opera houses over the world and probably will be copied extensively in the future.

Mr. Felipe Barral was in charge of producing the video I saw. He made an excellent work; first of all never exceeding in choice of effects, second with his “secondary narration”; the editing, where the viewer got the chance to have small glimpses behind the stage, viewing the small group of musicians separated by plastic shields, viewing the public and their bottles of sparkling wine and even adding a few scenes “off stage.” This overall narration created a feeling of complexity, tension and interest in the spectator so that never, even for a moment, was there a impression of dullness.

The story, with its “theater in theater” characteristic, is already a complex one with different narrative levels. So the danger of losing the story-line is great, especially when heard in a foreign language. All the persons involved made it possible to allow the public to participate and enjoy a real gem of verismo opera.

Only a few elements disturbed me a little: the choice to present at the beginning of the second part some two-dimensional puppets moved by persons in black clothes was maybe not strictly necessary. First of all the technical difficulties to move on an outside stage excluded from the start a flawless presentation. If the intent was to insert elements of the famous Black theater of Prague, this was not successful. Some lighting effects, like the violet light storm after the assassination at the end, were more than questionable and on the brink of “kitsch.” The overall audio quality could maybe still need some improvement. But this is really nothing when compared to all the other elements which were near perfection.

This is a production of which The Atlanta Opera can be proud. I am sure that in the future it will be coped, cited and envied by many. ■

Slide show images above were taken during the dress rehearsal for the Fall 2020 live performances.

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording the solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.