pagAside from being the choice of the revived New York City Opera for its opening double-bill this season, you may wonder what Rachmaninoff’s Aleko and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci have in common. 

Both operas are short, both were composed in 1892 and both concern women who, having ceased to love their jealous husbands, run off with attractive comprimarios. Knives flash and all four illicit lovers die miserably if unconvincingly, as is the way of staged knife fights. Both tales rather sympathize with the homicidal husband. This makes them apropos today, as a rejected lover’s right to murder his girl is at last undergoing rational challenge.

The City Opera aspires to introduce both unfamiliar repertory and gimmick-free productions of old favorites. The upcoming season refreshingly includes works by Bernstein, Respighi and Eötvos and a program from the Spanish baroque—music to please a happy variety of musical tastes. Aleko-Pagliacci, which will be repeated at Columbus Circle’s Rose Theater on Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, may the most traditional event on offer.

Lev Pugliese’s production and John Farrell’s unit originated at Opera Carolina in Charlotte, NC. The set is a boxcar between two boarded-over signal towers, with projections concealed behind it so that we’ll know whether we’re in Ukraine or Apulia. Aleko is based on a Pushkin tale set in a wild Gypsy encampment well before there were railways, but the program comes into its own in Pagliacci, placed circa 1951 to work in drab 1940s costumes by Ildiko Debreczeni.

The design-direction team take their cues here from Fellini’s masterpiece, La Strada, having Canio and Nedda enter in Anthony Quinn’s three-wheeled truck and obliging Nedda, like Giulietta Masina, to blow the trumpet that begins each act. Fellini grew up amid the dying tradition of commedia, and his nostalgia shines in his films, but there are no knife fights in Fellini and there is no adultery in La Strada. The quotations are distracting.

Aleko is a student exercise: Arensky assigned his top students to write a short opera and gave them an obscure Pushkin story. Rachmaninoff spent three weeks on it. Nearly every nineteenth-century Russian opera is based on Pushkin, but even the master had off-days or, rather, he created stories that do not turn into likely melodramas. Aleko is one.

The tunes are winning, derivative of Russian folk song, and the story is simple, but none of the characters has much personality and the 20-year-old composer could not create it with music. The opera is brief, obvious and dead. But so attractive are the tunes and so well-crafted the vocal lines that Aleko signals a tragedy: If only Rachmaninoff had composed a real opera! With a few years’ experience and a proper libretto, he might have given us a worthy repertory staple.

The singers gave vivid but uneven performances. Kevin Thompson, who is not Russian, possesses the sort of sizable, woolly bass that underpins most Russian operatic scores, and though his breath control was imperfect, he gave an evocative folksinger-by-the-campfire account of the Old Gypsy’s song, the only number that ever gets much independent play. As Aleko, Stefan Szkafarowsky had the build and white hair to suggest why slim young Zemfira has lost interest in him. His gritty bass did not make much of a case for him either, and his rage and loneliness both lacked tragic fuel.

Inna Dukach sang Zemfira with attractive lined of both voice and hem. I was impressed by Olga Lomteva’s brief turn as an old Gypsy Woman, less so by Jason Karn, stuck with the dull part of Zemfira’s boyfriend. The dancers, Andrei Kisselev and Yana Volkova, gave the occasion its liveliest and most authentic-seeming moments, and they had the most atmospheric music, too. The City Opera Chorus also danced as well as sang (and removed dead bodies) with panache, and conductor James Meena made the best of the simple tunes and inventive orchestrations.

With Pagliacci, at least, we were in the presence of an agreed-upon masterpiece, tight, direct and deadly. Get out of its way and it runs like an unbraked jalopy on a downhill straightaway. Despite the update to Fellini’s 1950s, the presentation closely resembled my first Pagliacci, Frank Corsaro’s staging for the City Opera nearly fifty years ago. And why not? Do this shocker with decent singing and acting and it’s hard to beat.

In any Pagliacci, Canio, an archetypal tenor lead, should have the standout performance, and Francesco Anile gave the most thrilling singing of the night. His yearning high phrases, his ill-repressed evolving rage held all attention. He makes one curious to hear his high, forceful voice in other roles. Michael Corvino’s Tonio was thoughtful, alive, expressive and funny, but there was no chance his rather grainy baritone would steal Canio’s thunder as a major voice often does—therefore, Canio did steal Tonio’s final line.

Gustavo Feulien, the Silvio, was another voice one would like to hear again; also, tall, dark and well set-up, he certainly had the seducer’s physique du role. Singing or juggling, Jason Karn made slight impression with Beppe’s pretty serenade.

Jessica Rose Cambio struck a curious position as Nedda, ladylike but wary, overtly resentful of Canio’s possessiveness and of the life on the road. Her voice builds on an attractive core but becomes shrill and unpleasantly desperate when forced to the higher ranges; her “Stridono lassu” was pitchy and lacked the semblance of a trill. The lower voice, shining in her duet with Silvio, was more attractive. The chorus and Maestro Meena were delighted to have more to do in this opera, but the intermezzo lacked the lushness New Yorkers are accustomed to.

Now, a word about knife fights, all of them on this occasion bloody but unconvincing. If you want to kill with a knife, you really have to thrust. A casual slash won’t accomplish much. Ask your local coroner. At my very first Pagliacci, in the City Opera’s then new Frank Corsaro production, Maralin Niska (who died just the other day, alas) went over backwards from Canio’s brutal lunge, her lifeless head a-dangle over the stage, while Canio raced through a terrified crowd hunting poor Silvio, brutally shoving the shiv into him before returning to sob over Nedda’s corpse. It was shock theater and has damn near ruined every subsequent performance of the opera for me. Sounded good too, but so, to be clear, did the new version at the Rose on Thursday night.

Photo: Sarah Shatz