When Franco Zeffirelli handed off his heady production of Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” to the Los Angeles Opera in fall 1996, complaints at being shortchanged — the opera usually constitutes half of a double-bill in most houses — were partially met by the glamour of supertenor Placido Domingo in the leading role of the tragic Canio, the clown laughing through tears. With Domingo elsewhere this time, and with single-ticket prices bursting through the $200 ceiling, the outcry might justifiably resound once again, especially since the current Canio is worthy of neither tears nor smiles.
Tenor Roberto Alagna, usually in tandem with his soprano wife Angela Gheorghiu, has become something of a glamour package in operatic circles. Gheorghiu had already been booked as Nedda for the Los Angeles “Pagliacci” opposite tenor Ben Heppner; when he dropped out, claiming the role no longer suited his voice, it made for good headlines for Alagna to move into the spot. Headlines maybe, but music, no.
The problem, as it took only a few notes to prove on Sunday, is once again a matter of unsuitability between role and voice. In the opera’s most famous moment, Nicola Luisotti’s orchestra whipped up a fine emotional storm under the famous outcry of “Ridi, Pagliaccio,” but Alagna’s pale, colorless tenor rode over the billows with no emotion or motivation.
Gheorghiu sang her music with a nice, lyric impulse, and the crowds of Zeffirelli’s village scene rode their scooters and motorbikes with fine theatrical flourish. But there is that one great musical line that draws the crowds to performances of “I Pagliacci,” and without a mighty, flamboyant, unhinged tenor — a Domingo, perhaps — to pin the crowd to its seats with that red-hot line, the rest of the opera is so much last week’s cold pasta, and overpriced at that.