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A clown cries as his love affair comes to a tragic end

San Diego Opera opens its 49th season Saturday with one of the most popular operas in the standard repertory. The drama about an itinerant troop of country players is the hallmark of verismo opera that became popular in Italian opera in the late 19th century. The public discarded the baroque-era staging of fantasies about kings and gods in favor of stories about real people in real-life situations.

They certainly got that in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” The story fits the opera season’s theme of unrequited love: a jealous husband is driven to end a staged drama with a passionate murder. The lead characters are a clown and his flirty wife who act out comic scenes in open-air theater around the countryside.

A third character is a deformed jester in the theater company who puts the drama into action when he is shunned by the clown’s wife. A fourth player is the unfortunate target of the clown’s jealous rage, a young village lad chasing the wife in a quadrangle love affair.

The opera is almost always scheduled with another short work, usually “Cavalleria Rusticana” and they were performed by SDO in 1979 and 2008. Another combination in 1969 was “Pagliacci” paired with Carl Orff’s “The Moon,” a comedy to balance the tragedy.

The story of an enraged clown might sound grim, but the opera is filled with lively music and a few familiar arias that define the players. Despite the durable popularity of “Pagliacci,” it is the only opera of many composed by Leoncavallo that has survived in the modern repertory. His version of "La Bohème” lost its priority as Puccini’s opera became more popular.

The premiere of “Pagliacci” at La Scala Milan in 1892 was conducted by a young Arturo Toscanini who did not care for the score. However, the public found the verismo story about ordinary people with everyday trials to be a relief from grandiose dramas.

Heading the cast as Canio is American tenor Frank Porretta, heard here last in “Rigoletto;” he has sung with major opera companies in America and abroad. His unfaithful wife, Nedda is played by Adina Nitescu, a Romanian soprano in her SDO debut, following her debut at the Metropolitan Opera and major houses in Europe. Frustrated Tonio is sung by Stephen Powell, a bravado baritone who has appeared with SDO several times.

Music is under the direction of French-Canadian conductor Yves Abel returning to SDO after his brilliant reading of last season’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” Veteran stage director Andrew Sinclair also returns to preside over the spirited stage action featuring the set and costumes owned by SDO.

Interesting insights into the opera characters, their joys and their fears, were shared at the Artists’ Roundtable during the rehearsal period. First, the singers said they were all pleased to be preparing for one opera and not competing with the partner production, which requires a separate cast. Abel opened some usual cuts in the score that bring out fresh motives for suspected betrayal.

Sinclair concentrated on defining each player. Canio the clown has passed his prime to be a great actor and must get by performing silly comedies for country folk. Nedda, his wife, appreciates being taken care of but finds love elsewhere. The jester Tonio can’t connect in a relationship. Silvio the lover is a naive youth who gets caught in the path of a vendetta.

All the characters are flawed, Abel said, adding that the players remind him of a side show of abnormal beings trying to cope with their defects.

“Pagliacci” is sung in Italian with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m. Saturday, Tuesday and Jan. 31; and 2 p.m. Feb. 2. For ticket information, call 619-533-7000 or visit www.sdopera.com

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University

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