LISTENING POST: Pagliacci — The Atlanta Opera isn’t clowning around

Outside and outta sight!

Pagliacci Performance
Photo credit: Ken Howard
BIG TENT SERIES AT OGLETHORPE UNIVERSITY: Richard Trey Smagur, leaning forward from his perch on the stage, plays Canio in the Atlanta Opera's production of “Pagliacci.”

The Atlanta Opera’s staging of Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which I attended Wednesday, was one of the most entertaining and unusual live productions I have ever experienced.

Under a huge tent on the baseball field at Oglethorpe University, we sat on spare but comfortable chairs arrayed around a small table, the flooring of soft mulch under our feet adding a playful touch to the circus-like atmosphere.

The principal singers performed much of the time inside raised pods equipped with clear vinyl walls, a setup which worked surprisingly well. The chorus sang off-site, their singing faces projected onto a panel above the stage, while the orchestra played behind the stage, safely situated under their own tent.

Obviously, the setting was highly unusual, dictated by COVID safety concerns. Regardless, one simply does not attend the opera this way, does one?

Like hell one doesn’t!

Once the music started and the tragic drama of Pagliacci the clown began to unfold, the oddness and novelty dissipated. The singers were in great form, the action was nonstop. The simple intrigue — an ill-fated love triangle — was depicted with gripping energy. The show not only went on, as it must, it was a fabulously fresh and highly invigorating take on an old, familiar piece of repertoire.

About halfway through Wednesday’s performance, the blustery, rainy weather put a whammy on the sound system. Atlanta Opera ringleader Tomer Zvulun immediately stepped to the front of the stage, signaled the singers to cease, and explained to the audience that there would be a few minutes delay while the sound problem was diagnosed.

A few minutes later, problem resolved, the singers and orchestra picked up where they had left off, and away we went. Maybe it was the already off-kilter environs, but my sense of the moment was that this unpredictable interlude barely registered as an inconvenience with the audience. Quite the opposite, even.

We’re at the opera under a tent in a rainstorm! Anything is possible! Embrace life! Celebrate its imponderableness and revel in the necessity for improvisation! And sing!

The whole evening was an unforgettably fun and joyous night at the opera.

The Atlanta Opera’s Big Tent Series represents a wonderfully imaginative response to an epic global pandemic. While it probably will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I hope Tomer and the AO advisory board will consider incorporating some semblance of the program into the company’s seasonal fare.

If you ask me, the Big Tent Series has all the makings of becoming “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

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