Tropical Storm Nate was picking up speed in the Gulf of Mexico on Friday night, but the mood in the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts was festive.
Two short Italian operas from the early 1890s were on the bill for the New Orleans Opera Association's 75th season opener: “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Rustic Chivalry) by Pietro Mascagni and “Pagliacci” (Clowns) by Ruggero Leoncavallo.
Sunday afternoon's performance had already been canceled, with Nate's path predicted to bring high winds and rain to the city. Matinee ticketholders were invited to attend Friday night instead, so the house was perhaps more full than usual, though still far from sold-out.
Once the audience settled in, they enjoyed commendable performances of both operas, whose plots both revolve around jealous husbands taking vengeance on their wives’ lovers and, in the case of “Pagliacci,” the wife as well, at the point of a knife.
In “Cavalleria,” the role of Santuzza, the rejected lover of Turiddu, was sung mournfully by soprano Dana Beth Miller, who hit the high notes with ease and distinctive clarity. Judging by the standing ovation at the end of the performance, she was clearly the audience favorite.
Dominick Chenes, as Santuzza’s erstwhile paramour Turiddu, performed as heartlessly as the role called for while projecting a ringing tenor to the farthest reaches of the house. His farewell aria to his mother, Mamma Lucia, was as emotionally heart-wrenching as the composer intended.
As Turiddu’s clandestine lover, Lola, mezzo-soprano Brindley McWhorter made a fine vocal showing in her brief role, while playing up her catty personality.
Baritone Wayne Tigges was also convincing in his role of Lola’s wronged husband, Alfio. His aria delivered in praise of his wife before learning of her infidelity was a high point of the production.
Soprano Phyllis Treigle was perfect as Mamma Lucia, projecting clarity in her notes and empathy in her character.
In “Pagliacci,” a special hats-off goes to tenor Frank Porretta for his portrayal of Canio, the leader of the itinerant circus troupe, especially for his stirring rendition of the famed “Vesti la giubba” (Put on your costume) aria. This classic piece, portraying the cuckolded clown who’s laughing on the outside and crying on the inside, calls for peak emotional projection, and Porretta delivered.
Canio’s wife, Nedda, sung by soprano Jessica Rose Cambio, was also in fine voice. Tigges, the only name-role singer double-cast in both productions, excelled as Tonio, the physically handicapped troupe member who loves Nedda in vain and later betrays her.
Also notable were baritone Joshua Jeremiah as Nedda’s secret lover, Silvio, and Thomas J. Capobianco as Beppe, who plays the Harlequin.
The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, ably conducted by Robert Lyall, played the scores for both operas well, most notably during the famous “Intermezzo” between scenes in “Cavalleria,” and the New Orleans Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus, both under the direction of Carol Rausch, contributed fine work.
The stage direction by Brad Dalton was spot-on, which couldn’t have been easy given the size of the cast when the chorus members and extras were onstage.
The set by Ryan McGettigan for “Cavalleria,” re-creating a 19th-century Italian village, was a perfect backdrop for cast members in period costumes.
However, a reconfiguring of the same set for “Pagliacci” clashed uncomfortably with the contemporary wardrobes of the singers and chorus members onstage. And the use of a vintage, weathered 1940s pickup truck for a stage instead of an 1800s wagon seemed very much out of place. The practice of restaging operas in later milieus may work in some instances, but in this case it presented problems.
The performance was made possible by a $75,000 donation in honor of the Opera Association’s 75th anniversary by Ranney and Emel Songu Mize. Ranney Mize is the immediate past president of the association’s board of directors.
NOTE: The Sunday, Oct. 8 performance of “Cavalleria Rusticana”/”Pagliacci” was canceled. Unused tickets may be swapped for future opera performances, donated for tax credits or refunded. Call the New Orleans Opera at (504) 529-2278 to make arrangements.