No one will ever convince me that Puccini's Il Tabarro is any kind of great opera and no matter how many times I see and hear Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, I will still enjoy it as much or more than any other opera. Nevertheless, the production of these two one-act operas we were lucky enough to witness tonight was as good an evening of opera--both in production and singing--as I've ever been privileged to attend.
The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis performs on the outlying campus of Webster University, which is a short drive from downtown St. Louis but is almost inaccessible save by car. That, of course, does not affect what I conclude is its deserved status as one of the three leading summer opera companies of the U.S., with Glimmerglass near Cooperstown and Santa Fe. The latter is now the sole remaining one of the three I've not yet attended.
Kelly Kaduce was highly touted in local reviews for her performance as Nedda in Pagliacci and she lived up to all the advance ballyhoo. It stands to reason that she is a company favorite because not only has she a fine soprano but she is one of the best singing actresses I've ever observed. She threw herself into the part which doesn't always stand out amid the more famous arias given the lead tenor and baritone: after all, Canio has the famed "vesti la giubba" a.k.a. "ridi, pagliaccio", as well as two other major singing pieces and Tonio has the almost-as-famous "prologuo", but Nedda's Bird Song was magnificent, along with her acting in the love duet with Silvio and the final play-within-the-play as Columbina.
Tim Mix used his powerful baritone in the leading role in Tabarro but stood out in Pagliacci from the moment in the overture when he steps onto the stage to sing the Prologue. Yet another fillip in that opera was returning to Tonio the classic last line of the opera, "la commedia e finita" which Leoncavallo had intended for the baritone because he is the prologue but which line was wrested from him by none other than Caruso, whose favorite part was Canio--he sang it 70 times at the Met.
The most outstanding part of the whole evening was the superb staging and design of the production. The imaginative sets and staging made both of these chestnuts come to life. I'm convinced based on these two operas that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis deserves its excellent notices. And the success came in the case of Tabarro, with an opera that unlike the third of the three one-acters Puccini joined to form Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, has no great arias. Good music, yes; memorable passages, none. Yet the productions made the occasion: this included having about a dozen players dressed in clown costumes to provide more depth to the Pagliacci cast--they made you realize how clowns can be at the same time funny, sad, and scary. Moreover, this company performs in English and that plus the excellent surtitles also improved the productions immeasurably.
Thus, even though I would recommend that any opera company considering this issue stick with Cavalleria Rusticana as the traditional one-act companion (and opener) for I Pagliacci, this presentation of Il Tabarro was as good a one as I ever expect to experience. And finally, the lead tenor in both operas was indisposed so the cover was a tenor from, of all places, Washington, D.C., named Michael Hayes, whom I'd not heard before--I'd not heard any of the casts before--and he, too, was strong and convincing.