"They're not acting," was the catch phrase at the beginning at Utah Festival Opera Company's production of `I Pagliacci," Leon Cavallo's tragic play within a play within a play.

Even before the orchestra began the short overture, the curtain was up and technicians, stage managers and costumed actors milled around freely.The leads remained in the foyer - in full view of the entering audience - stretching and warming up. When the orchestra began to play, the cast slowly assembled on the still-sparse set and Carlos Serrano stepped to the front to sing the prologue. He sang in English with Italian subtitles and warned the audience not to become over-emotional at what they were about to see.

Then the story of the traveling theater troupe began. In Italian with English subtitles.

Serrano switched from Narrator to Tonio, the deformed clown.

Rebecca Ravenshaw's passionate and at times piercing soprano added dimension to the role of Nedda.

C. Brian Woodward sand the role of Silvio, her lover, with a full, robust tone and an appropriate amount of swashbuckling inflections. But the evening belonged to Richard Sanchez in the title role.

His jealousy and heartbreak were palpable as his clean tenor voice howled, sobbed and menaced. His intensity built to the final scene, when the villagers realized "He's not acting!"

After a 20-minute break, the catch phrase for "Gianni Schicchi" - sung in English with no subtitles - was "I can't hear a word they're singing."

For the tragic flaw of UFOC's amusing setting of Puccini's comedy was the volume of the orchestra and the singers' lack thereof.

The balance will probably be fixed by the next time they perform it, and audience members with superhuman hearing were treated to the wittiest, most intelligent production of the opera they're ever likely to see in this state.

On a set that looked like a distorted pre-Renaissance painting, the greedy characters hilariously plotted the procurement of their late uncle's fortune. As in Pagliacci, the ensemble sang together tightly, which contributed to "Schicchi's" wit and humor.

All of the characters were funny, but Michael Ballam stole the show as the conniving title character.

Ballam's voice, facial expressions and excited manner made a believable and engaging character, and the others played off him nicely.

Everyone is familiar with the heart-melting aria "O mio babbino caro," but few know its original dramatic purpose. That sweet and lilting melody, sung by his naive daughter, Lauretta, is the only thing that could conceivably persuade Gianni Schicchi to help the despicable bunch in their plan.

Jamie Baer gave it life, and the audience hummed it as they left the theater. Maybe after they fix the sound, they'll also be singing the words.