GREENSBORO — “Pagliacci” offers just what an audience likes in an opera.
Love. Jealousy. Comedy. Conflict. Intrigue. Suspense. Shock. Murder.
And music that includes perhaps the most famous tenor aria in all of opera, sung by a sad clown when he discovers his wife’s infidelity.
“It is a mix of beautiful and powerful music that tells the story of a searing drama,” said David Holley, general and artistic director of Greensboro Opera.
Greensboro Opera will perform the 1892 work by Ruggero Leoncavallo on Nov. 15 and 17 at UNCG Auditorium.
It will be sung in Italian, with English supertitles projected above the stage.
The audience will hear rising star tenor Brandon Scott Russell sing “Vesti la giubba.”
“Pagliacci” (pronounced “pa-lee-ah’-chee,” it translates to “clowns”) will feature a cast of professionals both new and returning to the local opera company: tenors Russell and UNCG alum Joel Sorensen, soprano Suzanne Kantorski and baritones David Pershall and Richard Zeller.
Greensboro Opera’s chorus master, James Bumgardner, has prepared the 26-member chorus, which includes nine members of the Burlington Boys Choir.
Steven White, whose credits include conducting the orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera, will lead the orchestra for the first time.
As operas go, it’s short: 1 hour and 15 minutes over two acts, plus intermission.
Opera companies often have staged “Pagliacci” with “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni, a double bill known colloquially as “Cav and Pag.”
Both operas come from the Italian school of verismo, marked by melodramatic, often violent plots with characters drawn from everyday life.
Holley opted to produce just “Pagliacci.” Other opera companies have made the same decision.
“It’s a self-contained gem,” Holley said.
Time and money played a part.
The nonprofit opera company will spend $130,000 to stage “Pagliacci.” That pays for expenses such as singers and musicians, and renting scenery and costumes.
Adding “Cavalleria Rusticana” would have required another cast of singers, scenery and costumes, and a larger chorus, Holley said. It would have made the performance longer for both the opera company and the audience.
Holley also looks to the future.
In November 2020, the nonprofit opera company will present “Porgy and Bess” at the new downtown Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts. It will star Greensboro native and Grammy Award-winner Rhiannon Giddens.
“I have to be very fiscally responsible moving into the ‘Porgy’ year,” Holley said. “We cannot take a chance of running a deficit. We have to make sure we are solid financially.”
“Pagliacci” premiered in 1892 at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, Italy. It is the only Leoncavallo opera still widely performed.
The play within a play tells the story of a traveling troupe that performs “commedia dell’arte (comedy of the profession),” an early form of professional theater originating in Italy. The town has been waiting weeks for the troupe to arrive.
Troupe leader Canio (Russell) is married to Nedda (Kantorski), who is having an affair with Silvio (Pershall).
Tonio (Zeller), too, confesses his love to Nedda, but she rejects his advances. So he tells Canio about Nedda and Silvio. Canio demands that Nedda tell him the name of her lover, but she refuses.
Beppe (Sorensen) insists that they prepare for the troupe’s performance. Left alone, Canio sings “Vesti la giubba” as he dons his costume for his performance as Pagliaccio the clown, because the show must go on.
The real-life drama spills over into the second act — the troupe’s performance — which leads to Canio killing Nedda and Silvio.
In staging operas, Holley has been known to include students and alumni from UNCG, where he also works as director of opera. This production includes UNCG students in the chorus, orchestra and working backstage.
When casting principal singers, he likes to mix established singers with up-and-coming artists.
Several “Pagliacci” singers have performed at the famed Metropolitan Opera.
Russell was a 2018 National Semi-Finalist in the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He will sing the role of Canio for the first time.
“I got a recommendation from one of my colleagues who said he’s one of the best talents he has heard in 40 years,” Holley said. “We are excited to introduce him, so we can help launch careers as well as foster big talents that are already here, that have already made it.”
When Holley needed a singer for UNCG’s production of “Falstaff” last spring, he hired Zeller, a seasoned veteran who has sung at the Met. Zeller will return to sing the role of Tonio.
Pershall, who also has sung at the Met, has been featured as one of opera’s 25 rising stars in Opera News.
He sang the role of Silvio last year for San Francisco Opera’s production. Holley arranged for him to sing it again, in his fourth production for Greensboro Opera.
Holley had hired Kantorski to sing as Nedda, before she sang the role this year with Savannah Festival Opera and Opera Orlando.
When he heard her sing in Savannah, “It gave me great comfort and confidence in my casting choice,” Holley said.
Sorensen, too, has performed at the Met. He had sung the role of Beppe before, including one night as a stand-in for San Francisco Opera.
“It always helps when you have people who have done the roles before,” Holley said.
Pershall praises the music in “Pagliacci,” particularly the duet between Nedda and his character, Silvio.
“It’s not a long role, but man, is it beautiful music,” Pershall said of his part. “I’m really pumped to sing it, again.”
“The main reason this opera has stuck around for so many years is because of famous scene followed by famous scene, musically speaking, and then it’s over,” Pershall added.
“Audiences enjoy hearing these familiar melodies, but also experience this real dramatic force that’s in the show, that’s in the play, and the tensions that are on stage,” he said. “And then be relieved that it’s not five hours long.”