Verismo Double Bill with a Lyric Touch

SingaporeSingapore Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci, & Puccini: Gianni Schicchi: Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra, Singapore Lyric Opera Chorus, SLO Children’s Choir, Joshua Kangming Tan (conductor), Esplanade Theatre, 10.09.2015  (RP)

Verismo Double Bill with a Lyric Touch
Verismo Double Bill with a Lyric Touch

I Pagliacci

Tonio: William Lim
Canio: Lee Jae Wook
Beppe: Lemuel dela Cruz
Nedda: Sachika Ito
Silvio: Martin Ng

Gianni Schicchi

Gianni Schicchi: Adrian Clark
Zita: Sarah Pring
Lauretta: Marlena Devoe
Rinuccio: Lee Jae Wook
Gherardo: Lemuel dela Cruz
Nella: Sachika Ito
Simone: Park Byeong-In
Marco: Martin Ng
La Ciesca: Cheryl Lee Peixin

Director: Tom Hawkes
Set designer: Christopher Chua
Costume designer: Moe Kasim
Lighting designer: Adrian Tan

Staged opera productions are a rarity among the myriad musical offerings in the Little Red Dot, but the Singapore Lyric Opera keeps the flame alive through annual stage productions and concerts around town. Its formula is the same as with many other undertakings here: showcase local and regional talent at various stages in their careers, and supplement with imported, seasoned professionals. Tom Hawkes, the director of this current run of I Pagliacci and Gianni Schicchi, straddles the divide, so to speak, on several fronts; he is an SLO regular with numerous productions under his belt here, as well as an international reputation.

The composers linked the two operas by direct or indirect references to the stock characters of the commedia dell’ arte. Hawkes writes that in this production he provides another connection by giving them a common setting – an Italian film studio. I Pagliacci is set in post-WWII Italy, where a once famous actor and his troop now play to provincial audiences, including US soldiers, on a rundown film set. Gianni Schicchi, which follows, finds the actor and the film studio in their heyday some twenty years earlier. This concept did not register, as there was really no attempt through characterizations, costumes or stage designs to implement it. The two operas do not really need a fabricated link for, as Hawke writes, they are a natural fit and provide for a much more balanced evening than the usual pairing of “Cav and Pag.”

Set designer Christopher Chua devised a makeshift stage amid fallen columns and a crumbling façade as the setting for Leoncavallo’s melodrama. This was transformed into an elegant chamber dominated by towering columns and marble walls, where the relatives of the deceased Buoso Donati, aided and abetted by Gianni Schicchi, schemed and succeeded in getting their hands on his estate. Occasional projections of Florence’s Duomo through an archway provided a visual link to the city where the comedy is set. The one splash of color in the elegant Italianate backdrop was a large orange and yellow door.

It’s a challenge for major opera companies to cast the verismo repertoire nowadays, and the SLO wisely opted for a more lyrical approach. Singers took on roles in this nurturing venue to which they would otherwise need to give a wide berth. In both operas, the action coalesced around one character, due to the vivid flesh and blood personas that they created vocally and dramatically. In the Leoncavallo, it was Sachita Ito. Nedda is somewhat of a cypher, the object of three men’s desire, with a fatalistic bent. Ito brought all these facets of the character’s personality to life and her singing of Nedda’s Act I aria, “Stridono lassù,” was the vocal high point of the evening.

Lee Jae Wook’s lovely lyric tenor is just not the voice to tackle the demands of Leoncavallo’s famous clown. The South Korean tenor has a wonderful way with words, the text tripping off his tongue, but the vocal strain was evident. Dramatically, however, he captured the complexity of this egoistical, vengeful man with a hair-trigger temper. William Lim’s Tonio was underwhelming vocally and dramatically in the crucial opening scene, but put him in a clown’s costume and he comes to life. The same was true for the goodhearted Beppe of Lemuel dela Cruz from the Philippines. Martin Ng was likewise a light-voiced Silvia. One of the current generation of Singaporean singers studying and making the start of a career abroad, Ng exuded wholesomeness. In his military uniform, I just could not shake the image of him in the role of Lt. Joe Cable in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.

Peasant clothes and military uniforms did not prove fertile ground for costume designer Moe Kasim’s imagination, but the commedia dell’ arte did. The expertly crafted, matching costumes for Nedda and Beppe were a mosaic of bright primary colors and pure white, which was also the color of Tonio’s clown costume. Beppe in his role as a buffoon wore a hat worthy of the Mad Hatter atop his carrot-colored mop of hair. It was a wonderful topper. Lim and dela Cruz, in particular, were far more at ease on stage in Kasim’s commedia dell’ arte creations than in the street clothes in which they first appeared. Costumes made the men, to twist an old aphorism.

Sarah Pring’s Zita in Gianni Schicchi was simply marvelous. She was the ringleader of the money grubbing, opportunistic group of relatives scheming to enrich themselves from Donati’s estate. Park Byeong-In’s Simone was her fine accomplice, with his every utterance sung in an expressive baritone. The greedy family members worked wonderfully together as an ensemble. It was their show and they made the most of it.

Lee Jae Wook fared far better in the more lyrical role of Rinuccio, the only family member of the deceased seeking love and not money. In mere seconds, his face expressed the awareness that the conveniently timed death of Signor Donati and his relatives’ greed could be turned to his advantage. The object of his affections was the Lauretta of Marlena Devoe. Her youthful beauty was a virtue, but vocally she is still very much a work in progress. She floated lovely high notes in “O mio bambino caro”, but unfortunately pushed her voice below the staff, which gave her sound a harsh, unattractive edge.

Costumed in a garish, burnt-orange suit, Adrian Clarke’s Gianni Schicchi brought to mind a used car dealer. Without a doubt, he would line his own pockets with some of the dead guy’s money, but his prime motivation was to bring the two lovers together. He was conniving, yes, but never malicious or cruel. His vocal gifts are more lyrical in nature, but the seasoned pro never pushed his baritone beyond its limits. There was many a lesson for the younger singers to be learned from Pring and Clark.

If it was sometimes lacking in the voices, real verismo passion came from the orchestra pit. Joshua Kangming Tan’s fire and sensitivity were clear from the opening notes of the overture to I Pagliacci (enjoyed without any distractions from the stage). Without his firm hand, the orchestra could have easily overwhelmed some of the voices, but that never happened. Finally, hats off to both the opera and children’s choruses. There was no lack of energy whenever they were on stage, and they sounded great too.

Rick Perdian


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