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Pagliacci & Gianni Schicchi

Also published in The Rover.

The opening night of an opera season is an anxious bit of business. Chandeliers can fall, stage directors can quit, and it takes a few concerts to forget such things (well, not the stage directors.) So we sit in the darkened hall and cross our fingers, for their sakes.

Happily there was nothing to wince about when Opéra de Montréal opened their season this past weekend with a pairing of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. It was interesting, brisk, and smartly done. Management obviously read last year’s reviews.

The two operas make a clever formal pair. Pagliacci begins with a prologue read to the audience and Schicchi ends with a plea for indulgence. Moreover, the plots of both involve a play-within-a-play. Presented onstage in succession the two become a tasty soup about acting and life. I don’t think it’s better put than when Schicchi disguises himself as the dead Bouso to rewrite a will, and his cousin Zita asks: Is it Gianni who plays Buoso, or Buoso who plays Gianni? If it’s all pretend, what’s the difference?

Pagliacci is about a troupe of comic actors whose real lives aren’t funny. It ends tragically, which is what the prologue has to say. Schicchi is a comedy about death and inheritance. The epilogue informs us that the main character is sent to hell for it, which is a funny way to end a comedy. And both are short. Very short, by operatic standards, so the evening cantered by on the back of a tight MSO lead by James Meena.

The baritone Gregory Dahl was wonderful; his subtle acting and lush voice the more impressive for doing the most work (he sings Tonnio in Pagliacci and Schicchi in Schicchi). Marie-Josée Lord (Nedda) seemed about to lose control of her talent at times, which is a nice thing to hear in a young soprano; and Étienne Dupuis (Silvio) sang with such tenderness and clarity that I think he deserved a bigger part. The cast of Schicchi sounded generally stronger than that of Pagliacci, and Marianne Fiset was a bright bird when she sang Lauretta’s aria “O mio babbino caro”.

It helped, as usual, if I looked less than I listened. Like a beaten dog that deludes itself to its master’s real kindness, I keep wearing my glasses to the OdM long after I’m incapable of optimism regarding its stage design. It was with a familiar horror that I read director Alain Gauthier’s note in the program informing us that though we were too stupid to appreciate the many similarities between the two operas, he had, bless him, made the effort to “make these observations visually apparent.” Those who still failed to make the connection were mugged and sent to a re-education program.

The rest of the season looks rather blue-chip: The Magic Flute, Tosca, and Cendrillon. Simon Boccanegra could be considered outré, depending on whom you ask, but I’m looking forward to them all. Surprises last year like Lucia di Lammermoor showed what the OdM is capable of, and Pagliacci/Schicchi confirms that impression. This is a company going up.