October 4th, 2010 4:00 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI Arts & Books | Posted In: Theater

EXTENDED REVIEW: Portland Opera, Pagliacci / Carmina Burana

Murderous clowns never sounded so good.

The curtain goes up. Onstage, in bright lights, lie two dead or nearly dead bodies, 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 apprehend him, but at this moment, for some reason, they are frozen like a photograph, a tableau of horror and outrage. All at once, the orchestra begins to play the opening bars of “O Fortuna”—an anthem that many will remember from its turn as climactic battle music in The Lord of the Rings. At the sound of its primitive, pulsing ostinatos, the stage erupts in movement; dancers from critically-acclaimed Portland company Bodyvox rush onstage and thrash about in ecstasy. Simultaneously, the sets are dismantled, the operatic principals are ushered offstage, a large white globe descends, and a full-size tree (a set piece) lifts off—lifts off!—turns on its side, and hovers in midair above the performers at stage left.

In this single, brilliant gesture—using the grisly double murder at the conclusion of Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci as a launch pad for the pathos and primitive power of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana—stage director Christopher Mattaliano manages, con brio, to knit together two staged operatic works that share almost nothing in common: 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. In so doing, he vaults the greatest hurdle that had faced the opening production of Portland Opera's 2010-11 Season: making sense of an apparently schizophrenic double-bill. Think about it. At the end of Pagliacci, Canio's life is essentially over: having murdered his wife and her lover, he is destined to be executed, himself, or at least to spend the rest of his life in prison. But from an operatic perspective, things are only beginning to get interesting. At such life-or-death moments, this staging seems to imply, one taps into life's primitive power, expressed in the primal rhythms and keening melodies of Carmina Burana. At such moments, one explores heady peaks and yawning chasms of feeling that remain unavailable, even unknowable, to those who live moderately on the grasslands of life.

Conceptually, this production represents a master stroke, and the quality of its execution, though not quite perfect, is still very good.

The staging of Pagliacci is charming in its own right and could easily stand alone, although visually, it seems to draw heavily from Franco Zeffirelli's 1982 film version. With the exception of Mark Rucker, whose interestingly dark baritone was consistently ominous in the role of Tonio, the singers did not hit their stride until the end of Act I or in some cases (tenor Steven Brennfleck) Act II. Marian Pop is an underwhelming Silvio: while smiling, he sings out of only one side of his mouth, which affects his diction terribly. He seems ill at ease while walking and gesturing. But the musical end of the production is buoyed by a winning chorus and a top-shelf orchestra. Conductor John Demain—although he might plausibly pick up the pace a bit—deploys the cinematic crescendo to great effect, engaging the orchestra as a character in the dramatic action. He is especially good during Nedda's birdsong aria (Stridono lassù), eliciting a precise, ethereal sound crowned by the delicate plucking of the harp.

Then, however, the tree takes off, and from there on out it's solid gold. Although nowadays Carmina Burana is usually performed in concert, it was written as a staged work, so this co-production by Portland Opera and Bodyvox—though it strikes one as breathlessly current—actually follows a long tradition. Originally, the so-called imaginibus magicis (magical images) that would have accompanied the music included costumed dances, dreamlike sets and (in another work, the St. Luke Passion) slide projections of 15th-century Tyrolean woodcuts. In this staging, in addition to the accomplished choreography of Bodyvox principals Ashley Roland and Jamey Hampton, the Latin text is illuminated with innovative elements like shadow puppetry and a real-live albino boa constrictor. Your humble reviewer having limited exposure to the vagaries of modern dance, he will not attempt to describe the elegant involutions enacted by the dancers in their interpretation of Carl Orff's masterpiece. He will say only that their performance is very good.

Last, just for fun, here's a recent mashup of Carl Orff's "O Fortuna" and Linkin Park's "The Catalyst" by DJ's from Mars.
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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