The curtain rises. Onstage, in bright lights, lie the corpses of a woman in clown paint and a young man in plain clothes. Nearby sits the jealous husband who has stabbed them. The townspeople are poised to arrest him, but at this moment they are frozen like a photograph, a tableau of horror and outrage. All at once, the orchestra begins to play. It is the stark opening bars of "O Fortuna"—an anthem many will remember as battle music in The Lord of the Rings—and at the sound of its pulsing ostinatos. The sets are dismantled, the actors are ushered offstage, a large white globe descends, and a full-size tree (a set piece) lifts off, turns on its side and hovers in midair at stage left.
In this single, brilliant gesture—using the grisly double murder at the end of Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci to launch the pathos and primitive power of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana—stage director Christopher Mattaliano knits together two works that share almost nothing in common, making sense of an apparently schizophrenic double-bill: the one, an old standard in the style of Italian opera verismo, the other, a patchwork of infectious, repetitive melodies inspired by Bavarian folk dances. At the end of Pagliacci, Canio's life is essentially over: having murdered his wife and her lover, he is destined to be executed, or at least to spend the rest of his life in prison. But from an operatic perspective, things are just getting interesting. At such life-or-death moments, this staging implies, one taps into life's primitive power, expressed in the primal rhythms and keening melodies of Carmina Burana, exploring heady peaks and yawning chasms of feeling that are unavailable to those who live moderately on the grasslands of life.
Conceptually, this production is a master stroke, and the quality of its execution, though not quite perfect, is still very good. Having limited exposure to the vagaries of modern dance, I will not attempt to describe the dancers' interpretation of Carl Orff's masterpiece. Their performance, which incorporated shadow puppetry and a real-life albino Burmese python, was very good. The staging of Pagliacci was charming in its own right and could easily have stood alone, although it seemed to draw heavily from Franco Zeffirelli's 1982 film version. Of special note is Mark Rucker, whose interestingly dark baritone is deliciously threatening in the role of Tonio.
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 241-1802, portlandopera.org. 7:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 30, and Saturday, Oct. 2. $26-$151.