REVIEW: Pagliacci/La voix humaine @ Opera Cleveland 11/11/2010

A duo of over-the-top soap operas? Well, almost. Opera Cleveland’s double bill delighted last week with two musical looks at how romantic passion inspires crazy behavior. Frances Poulenc’s La voix humaine opened the evening. As Elle, the discarded blond mistress, soprano Robin Follman lolled around on a chaise and lied on the phone to her former lover (who was dumping her to marry someone else). Follman reveled in sonic melodic images of grief as the (probably) suicidal Elle obsessively insisted she was “just fine.” Honestly, I kept thinking she needed either a girlfriend who would give her a good Oprah-style talking-to or that Jean Cocteau, who wrote the libretto, needed an editor (but can you imagine telling French genius Monsieur Cocteau that he rambled? Not likely). Maybe she doesn’t kill herself (as it seems she will), but instead joined the Carmelites.

After intermission the amazing Follman completely transformed herself and became the fiery brunette spitfire wife Nedda in Leoncavallo’s well-known and beloved I Pagliacci. Once again, dysfunctional romantic pairings cast a shadow, something adumbrated by the two cleverly costumed mimes — “comedy” clad in white; “tragedy” clad in black — who opened and closed the show. But now it’s romance Italian opera style — which meant that even more characters were going to die (and bathed in blood on stage). Matter of fact, both the lyrically lovely Nedda and her smooth and secret lover, Silvio (baritone Eric Dubin) end up dead. But before that sad event, Canio (tenor Gregory Carroll) Nedda’s husband and leader of the troupe dons his clown suit, becomes Pagliaccio the comedia del’arte clown, and breaks our hearts with the famous tenor aria vesti la giubba.

Michael Chioldi (as Tonio) served admirably as both commentator and villain. The costumes and sets were minimal, but enough to convey both the sterility of the Poulenc heroine’s life and the thwarted possibilities for joy in Leoncavallo’s Italian village. As has become standard (and welcome), the Opera Cleveland orchestra conducted by Dean Williamson as well as the Opera Cleveland Chorus proved superb musical partners. This is the last performance of the season for Opera Cleveland, which is taking the next season off to re-group and to try to find a way to continue as an entity. Here’s wishing them the best of luck. And here’s a toast of thankfulness for the many musical treats Opera Cleveland has already given the community.

Laura Kennelly is a freelance arts journalist, a member of the Music Critics Association of North America, and an associate editor of BACH, a scholarly journal devoted to J. S. Bach and his circle.

Listening to and learning more about music has been a life-long passion. She knows there’s no better place to do that than the Cleveland area.

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