Clowns and Cuckolds
Marina del Rey Symphony presents fully staged performance of Leoncavallo’s opera ‘Pagliacci’ at Burton Chace Park
By Bliss Bowen
Opera is a relatively rare beast in the City of Angels. Notwithstanding the glamorous elegance that the L.A. Opera adds to Angeleno cultural life with its high-ticket productions, it is far from commonplace to hear arias ringing out of smaller theaters or cafes — rarer still to encounter open-air opera that is free to the public.
That is precisely what the Marina del Rey Symphony will be offering next Thursday: a harbor-side performance of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” at Burton Chace Park. The outdoor environment will add an air of verisimilitude, since the action begins in the late afternoon and progresses into the evening.
“Our Thursday audiences have become more accustomed to more classical [programs],” explains Marina del Rey Symphony Artistic Director Frank Fetta, “but they wanted something spectacular and unusual that we haven’t done before. So I suggested we do ‘Pagliacci.’”
“Pagliacci,” which premiered in 1892, is a classic in the operatic canon. (Coincidentally, L.A. Opera will also stage it this fall.) “Vesti la Giubba,” a mournful aria sung by Canio, the cuckolded husband, has been recorded by José Carreras, Enrico Caruso, Plácido Domingo, Mario Lanzo and Luciano Pavarotti, and featured in countless compilations. Even those unfamiliar with opera have likely heard its surging refrain.
Next Thursday it will be sung by Mattéo Bitetti; soprano Daria Somers will sing opposite him as Nedda, the unhappy wife who plans to run away with her lover, Tonio, portrayed by baritone Ralph Cato. Haqumai Sharpe (Peppe) and Bernardo Bermudez (Silvio) round out the principal cast, whose collective resume boasts of performances with operatic companies and symphonies across North America and Europe. They will be accompanied by the symphony and the Meritáge Vocal Arts Ensemble.
Revolving around a theatrical troupe that roams Italy’s countryside, the storyline of “Pagliacci” is soapy stuff: Wife, feeling trapped and lonely, is secretly unfaithful. Husband, jovial in public, is privately possessive. Husband learns of wife’s affair, demands she reveal her lover’s name as they perform a play within the play; she refuses. Bloody retribution follows. Within those familiar tropes are poised questions concerning reality, perception and understanding.
“This particular period of opera in Italy was verismo, meaning real-life,” Fetta says, offering his perspective on why “Pagliacci” has retained its popularity. “And this is a story that actually occurred when Leoncavallo was a kid. His grandfather, who was a local magistrate, told him about a case he’d adjudicated in court. There was a company of actors, a wife was unfaithful, and her husband, who was actually acting in the play, killed his wife onstage in front of the whole audience. It’s not a made-up story.
“However, this kind of story is not a stranger to the art world. [Think of] soap operas, that movie ‘A Perfect Murder’ with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. There’s always a jealous husband, wife, lover, friends that warn both of them. … From the verismo period in Italian opera, our TV soap operas developed from that.”
Fetta says that, aside from its enduring popularity, his reasons for selecting “Pagliacci” were practical.
“It’s only two acts, and the running time is about an hour and 10 minutes. That’s quite short for an opera. And it takes place totally out of doors. Burton Chace Park lends itself perfectly to that.”
Leoncavallo set the action in 1860s Calabria, Italy, but Fetta has updated it to the 1940s — not unlike director Franco Zeffirelli, who set his 1982 film version in the years between WWI and WWII. The nature of the venue demands “easily movable” set pieces — one of which will be a 1946 truck that ferries the company onstage.
“They are going to make their entrance as if they’re actually entering the town coming in from the mountainous areas around Sicily,” Fetta explains. “They’re a traveling troupe of actors who are going to perform in this little village. … My rationale for staging it right after WWII is, in Italy they didn’t have much money, so in the country areas a lot of people depended on these second-rate theater companies to bring them entertainment.”
In addition to the Marina del Rey / Culver City Symphony, Fetta also serves as conductor and/or musical director with the Redlands Bowl Music Festival, San Bernardino Symphony and Nevada Opera Theater, and he’s worked with “crossover” acts like Vikki Carr, Rita Coolidge and the Irish Tenors. The longtime Eagle Rock resident says he understands pop’s appeal, but that opera endures because its “spectacle” rarely fails to impress — especially younger listeners who “never knew the human voice could do that with no microphone.”
More than once he expresses pride in how Thursday concerts at the park introduce audiences to new, sophisticated music.
“We’re really connecting people, in the kinds of music that we do and the way we present it, to historical periods in music and art and literature and dance,” he says. “We try to link together a lot of cultural milieus.
“Besides,” he adds with a laugh, “where else in the world could you have a water taxi bring you to the concert?”
The Marina del Rey Symphony presents Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13, at Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Free. Call (310) 305-9545 or visit culvercitysymphony.org