(Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A. Music Center; 3,201 seats; $ 125 top) The Los Angeles Opera presents Ruggero Leoncavallo’s two-act opera; text by the composer, inspired by a newspaper crime report. Director/ set designer, Franco Zeffirelli; conductor, Lawrence Foster, with the L. A. Opera Orchestra and Chorus; costumes, Raimonda Gaetani; lighting, Alan Burrett. Opened and reviewed, Sept. 4; runs through Sept. 22. Running time. 1 hour, 40 min. Cast: Placido Domingo (Canio), Veronica Villaroel (Nedda), Juan Pons (Tonio); with Greg Fedderly, Manuel Lanza, Malcolm MacKenzie, William George. Vladimir Bogachov will sing Canio for the last performance (Sept. 22); Timothy Noble sings Tonio for the last three (Sept. 17, 20, 22). Its blood-smeared plot as fresh as today’s headlines (jealous husband stabs wanderlust-smitten wife), its one big tune embedded into everybody’s cultural landscape, Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” worked its familiar magic to start off the L. A. Opera’s 11th season at the Music Center. It was ecstatically cheered by a sold-out house, as it deserved to be. Several interesting and contradictory statements had surfaced in previous days. Asked at a press conference why the opening program consisted of only Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” (which is customarily given on a double-bill with another brief Italian shocker, Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”), supertenor/ conductor/newly anointed impresario Placido Domingo replied that the two works together (even then constituting a fairly brief night at the opera, at 2 1/2 hours top) made for cruel exhaustion for singers and audience alike. Domingo then noted that the role of Wagner’s Tristan five hours’ worth and then some is an upcoming item on his agenda.
Similarly, omnipotent director/designer Franco Zeffirelli, best known for his outsized period-piece productions at the Metropolitan, voiced his disapproval at stagings that update an opera’s stipulated time and place, while revealing that his “Pagliacci” his L. A. Opera debut offering, co-produced with the Domingo-headed Washington Opera would be given in modern time, setting and costumes. Beyond a few underused props a car, a tractor, and television sets ablaze in windows of the tenement-style background set there was little to distinguish Zeffirelli’s time-and-place from the 1865-or-so setting stipulated in Leoncavallo’s text. Fashions in peasant costumes, after all, do not often change.
The real Zeffirelli touch, pure magic this time, was the marvelous blend of village bustle with the shenanigans of the visiting troupe of “Pagliacci,” which included a troupe of acrobats alongside clowns, drum-thumpers and several animals. The contrast between glorious hyperactivity and the numbing tragedy at the opera’s core was tellingly underlined. Thanks also to Zeffirelli’s direction, Domingo’s presentation of the cuckolded Canio became something more than just a buildup to the One Big Tune. In handsome voice, he created a believable character from first to last, spotlighting the bitter irony as well as the tragedy in the evergreen “Vesti la giubba” and rising to a truly frightening wrath in the final scene. Soprano Veronica Villaroel, as the errant Nedda, gave one of her usual efficient if faceless performances, and baritone Juan Pons, in his local debut, delivered a powerful portrait of the clown Tonio.
Lawrence Foster conducted. Ten years ago, Foster conducted the Los Angeles Opera’s first-ever performance, Verdi’s “Otello,” also starring Domingo. That Oct. 7 night had begun with a mini-disaster, as the curtain failed to rise at the start. This year’s anniversary disaster, also at the very start, was of a milder order: a string of out-of-place supertitles that turned the solo prologue into a loveduet. After 10 years, the local opera company has obviously not run out of surprises.