Tragedy has the last word in Dayton Opera’s I Pagliacci

By Eric Street

Photo: John Grigaitis

What lies beneath the enigmatic face paint of a clown? If Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s gripping opera I Pagliacci (The Clowns) is any indication, the reality can be far darker than the makeup’s bright camouflage reveals to the casual eye. Be on hand to see all pretense gradually stripped away as opera’s most famous clown takes the Mead Theatre stage in Schuster Center on Friday, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 13 at 3 p.m., when Dayton Opera, under the leadership of Artistic Director Thomas Bankston, presents Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. Sung in Italian with English subtitles, this tragic opera exposes the simmering love, betrayal, heartbreak, and vengeance lurking beneath a clown’s whimsical makeup.

A traveling theatrical troupe of clowns in sunny southern Italy makes a cheery setting, but inevitable disaster looms behind the scenery for this ill-fated troupe. As the drama begins, one of opera’s most famous opening prologues reminds us that the actors we are about to see are real people with flesh-and-blood feelings.

The vibrancy and authenticity of those characters is the hallmark of the verismo (realistic) style of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. His succinct but intense masterwork sweeps the audience along with its grand tunes and gut-punching heartbreak, climaxing in an on-stage murder as the players gradually veer from their rehearsed comic script and build to a final tragedy that brings down the curtain before a stunned group of onstage spectators.

Based on a real-life love-triangle murder known to Leoncavallo from childhood, I Pagliacci is by far the composer’s best-known work. Countless audiences know Canio’s heart-wrenching aria “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on the costume”), which he sings as he prepares for the final performance in which he confronts his wife, Nedda, over her secret infidelity with the young villager, Silvio. Acting for her life on stage, Nedda is unable to calm her enraged husband, who takes his vengeance with a knife in front of the unsuspecting small-town audience. As the shockwaves of the final tragedy reverberate, the curtain rings down to one of the best-known closing lines in all of opera: “La commedia è finita”—“The comedy is finished!”

Returning to Dayton Opera for a lucky 13th time to direct Leoncavallo’s tragic opera is Stage Director Gary Briggle, who most recently travelled to Dayton last May to direct Dayton Opera’s world premiere of The Book Collector.  Prior to that directing triumph, Briggle’s work with Dayton Opera included both direction and performance in the May 2015 “Evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein” that helped inaugurate the first season of the Rose Music Center in Huber Heights. Briggle was also stage director for the groundbreaking Dayton premiere of Dead Man Walking in February 2015.

Gary Briggle’s other past performances, either on-stage or at the directing helm, include Dayton Opera productions of Candide, The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S Pinafore, The Barber of Seville, Porgy and Bess, The Tragedy of Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro, and the memorable production of Hansel and Gretel in 2014, where Briggle both directed and performed the pivotal role of the Witch.

“Audiences have loved I Pagliacci for a very long time,” Briggle says. “It was the first opera ever recorded in its entirety, and one of its arias, ‘Vesti la giubba,’ became a signature piece for the great tenor Caruso. In more recent years, the aria has been appropriated by the advertising industry.” Some readers may recall its despairingly passionate tune wedded to the not-so-immortal words, “No more Rice Krispies, we’re all out of Rice Krispies!”

Back story & modern dress

Pagliacci is the quintessential Italian verismo opera,” Briggle explains. “I like to think it’s built on three-dimensional characters. It grows from an actual historical incident, which gives it great verisimilitude, a hallmark of the verismo, or ‘realistic’ style.” A major test for the director of such a venerated classic is how to keep the audience enthralled when everyone knows how it all turns out in the end. “One of the great challenges with a piece of standard repertoire, as we say, is how to keep the audience from getting ahead of the action, since many in the auditorium already will know the story,” Briggle says. “For this reason, how the story is told becomes even more important. In this production, we’re updating the action to 1945 instead of 1885.” Briggle wanted to free the opera from its history as a costume drama, giving the characters a modern immediacy while retaining the original integrity of its characters and context within the wonderful world of theatre.  “They’re traveling in southern Italy immediately after the Second World War and visiting communities that have been devastated by the war,” Briggle says, explaining the updates and adding that he took his inspiration from Fellini’s film “La Strada,” also set in war-ravaged southern Italy.

“Despite its inevitability,” he continues, “there are lots of twists and turns in the drama along the way. I’m really looking forward to working with the singer-actors in exploring the dimensions with which we tell the story.”  In this production, Briggle has restored the final line, “La commedia è finita,” to Tonio for whom the words were originally written, but frequently have been sung by Canio. “Tonio sings the Prologue, as well, so by both introducing and ending the story as Leoncavallo intended, he becomes the bookends—he becomes our point of view. Like Iago, Tonio goads Canio into killing his wife, so he becomes a very compelling part of the story,” he says.

Briggle considers it important to note that when Leoncavallo was a boy, his grandfather served as magistrate at a trial that provides the kernel for the love-triangle plot of I Pagliacci.  Obviously, overheard bits of overheard adult conversation left an indelible impression on the child.

Briggle asked himself, “What’s going on between Canio and Nedda? Between Canio and Tonio? What’s going on among the characters of the acting troupe, which functions as a family?” “In taking stock of ways in which we might keep the audience surprised, an important one is keeping those interpersonal dynamics. I’m hugely conscious of the psychology of the characters,” he explains.

Another reason Briggle is delighted to set the opera in the mid-20th century is the responsibility to make it “as realistic, truthful, and spontaneous as can be,” Briggle concludes. “I can’t wait to see what the singers do when freed from 19th century histrionics and see what they do when behaving naturally.” Acting today varies greatly from what is was in when the opera premiered. It’s hard to believe the first production was actually done in that day’s modern dress.

“Part of the lifeblood of Pagliacci is the easy flow from real life to stage life. For Canio, the distinction between reality and fiction blurs so completely that he commits a terrible act on-stage. For a director,”  Briggle says, “this blurring is tremendously stimulating!”

Maestro, please

Conducting the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra for I Pagliacci is Willie Anthony Waters, who returns to Dayton Opera for the first time in over 20 years. This production marks his third time with Dayton Opera, following his 1994 production of Carmen and his 1984 production of Faust. Since his last visit to Dayton, Maestro Waters has served as artistic director for Connecticut Opera, and he has guest-conducted for numerous opera companies and symphonies around the world. In 1985, Maestro Waters became the first African-American to be named Artistic Director of a major American opera company, the Greater Miami Opera, now Florida Grand Opera.

“Dayton Opera welcomes Maestro Waters back to Dayton and looks forward to introducing him to Dayton’s world-class venue, the Schuster Center,” says Angela Whitehead, communications and media manager for the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance.

Send in the clowns

For the lead role of Canio, head of the troupe of traveling clowns, tenor John Pickle returns to Dayton Opera, having most recently performed the lead role of Lt. B.F.Pinkerton in Dayton Opera’s 2015 intimate production of Madame Butterfly. This performance marks Pickle’s fourth visit to Dayton in just two years, after making his debut in May 2014 in the role of Radames in Aida, and visiting this past January as soloist with the Dayton Philharmonic in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

“This isn’t my first time singing Canio,” Pickle says. “He’s one of my favorite characters. It’s a bit daunting to sing one of the most iconic arias in the operatic repertoire! Clowns have been getting a bad rap in the press lately,” he laughs. “My wife is terrified of clowns, so from time to time I threaten to wear my costume home!”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer says of John’s vocal talent, “His tenor is so mellifluous that we are captivated whenever he lets his voice out.” The Delaware News Journal writes of his recent performance in I Pagliacci, “John Pickle’s portrayal of the jealous Canio is especially poignant during the aria ‘Vesti la giubba,’ the tenor’s powerful high notes ringing beautifully throughout the house.”

Also returning to Dayton Opera is soprano Chloé Oliva Moore, who will sing the captivating role of Canio’s flirtatious wife Nedda, whose shocking on-stage murder marks the tragic climax of Leoncavallo’s play-within-a-play. This is Moore’s first return performance in Dayton since making her Dayton Opera debut as Leila in the April 2015 production of Bizet’s exotic and haunting Pearl Fishers. Garnering kudos for her unique timbre and depth, flexibility and speed, Moore’s voice has been praised for having “an amber mellowness like a warm cognac” in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Dayton’s own Oakwood Register characterizes her voice as “crystalline, with controlled power.”

Rounding out the lead roles is baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, who returns to Dayton Opera for the third time after previous appearances as Sharpless in the 2006 production of “Madame Butterfly,” and in the title role of the 2002 Don Giovanni.  With a voice described at having a “rich vocal range full of inviting nuance,” MacKenzie has captured attention in the dramatic baritone repertoire for several years.  MacKenzie sings the role of Tonio, the traveling clown who, in an act of deep-seated revenge, betrays Canio by exposing his wife’s indiscretions, fueling Canio’s rage and ultimately hurtling the story to its tragic climax.

Two important supporting roles will be taken by returning singers Kenneth Stavert and Robert Norman. Dayton Opera often brings back to the Mead Theatre stage its former young artists-in-residence, and for this production of I Pagliacci, 2012-13 artist-in-residence program alumnus baritone, Kenneth Stavert performs the role of Silvio, Nedda’s other love interest. Audiences may remember Stavert from his delightful performance of Papageno in the 2014 production of The Magic Flute.

Tenor Robert Norman returns to Dayton for his second appearance with Dayton Opera after undertaking the role of Goro in last season’s Madame Butterfly. Norman will take on the role of Beppe, a member of the troupe who tries in vain to keep the play-within-a-play on track when he sees Canio’s rage exploding out of control on stage. Watch for him later this season when he returns as Pedrillo in The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Helping set the scene as residents of the Italian village are the ever-versatile members of the Dayton Opera Chorus, under the direction and leadership of Chorus Master Jeffrey Powell.  They take the stage as the small-town audience and voice their excitement at the live show.

Before the Performance

Prior to both Dayton Opera performances of I Pagliacci, Dayton Opera will host a Festa Italiana in the Wintergarden of the Schuster Center. Audience members are invited to come an hour before scheduled performance times on Friday and Sunday to be transported into an Italian celebration, with festive decor, Italian delicacies from Citilites, jugglers, and stilt-walkers from Cincinnati Circus Company, and on the DP&L stage, favorite Italian arias, as well as popular and Neapolitan songs performed by I Pagliacci’s very own Beppe, tenor Robert Norman.

Want to learn even more about I Pagliacci? Come one hour prior to both performances to hear pre-performance talks presented by UD music professor Sam Dorf, Ph.D., inside the Mead Theatre.

I Pagliacci takes the stage Friday, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 13, at 3 p.m., at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. Tickets range from $28 to $94 and are available at or by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630. Senior, student, and military discounts are available. For more information, please visit

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Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at

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