SALT LAKE CITY — Clowns are more murderous than funny, and dead family members are more funny than sad.
This is the strange order of things in Utah Opera’s newest production. The opera company is putting on a unique double-bill performance March 10-18. “Pagliacci,” the 1892 Italian tragedy by Ruggero Leoncavallo, will be paired with Giacomo Puccini’s comedy “Gianni Schicchi.”
Yes, both operas turn common notions of humor and drama inside out, but in that, there’s an unusual kind of balance.
“In this particular double bill, one thing I walk away with on a deeper level is the idea of laughter to tears and tears to laughter, and what that really means is going back and forth,” said tenor Scott Piper, who plays Canio the clown in “Pagliacci.”
This is Piper’s fourth time playing Canio. It’s a legendary role: “Pagliacci” is a play within a play, and Canio discovers his wife, Nedda, has been unfaithful. His descent into grief and rage belies the clown garb in which he’s dressed.
“It is angsty and bloody and has a huge chorus, and children, and clowns,” said Tara Faircloth, the show’s stage director. “It’s about passion and has these huge, soaring melodies.”
“Pagliacci” is typically paired with “Cavalleria Rusticana,” an opera with equally weighty themes. Switching the latter out for a Puccini comedy, Faircloth said, ends the evening on dessert instead of a heavy main course.
“So we get to break their hearts in the first opera,” added Marina Costa-Jackson, who plays Nedda in “Pagliacci,” “and then in the second, we get to put a little bit of balm on there.”
Costa-Jackson also plays Lauretta in the evening’s second opera, “Gianni Schicchi.” This kind of double duty is an exciting challenge for the singers, directors and conductors who are tasked with pulling it all together. That these two operas have such different emotional cores really ups the ante.
Both of these composers are from the same time period, but according to the show’s conductor, Timothy Myers, their musical styles in these two pieces are quite different. While the music in “Pagliacci” is deep and continuously heavy, “Gianni Schicchi,” he said, “has to be pretty frothy.”
“You don’t want ‘Gianni Schicchi’ to have the ‘Pagliacci’ hangover,” he added.
“Gianni Schicchi” was among Puccini’s final works — and, perhaps appropriately, ruminates on death, albeit through a humorous lens. The opera follows a group of family members scheming to change their deceased father’s will (to their dismay, he left his entire inheritance to a local monastery). When the family invites an impersonator to imitate their deceased father, hoping to fool the local notary into changing the will, things go awry.Comment on this story
Utah Opera’s production sets both operas in the late 1930s/early 1940s. This setting, Faircloth said, gives the stories historical distance while still feeling somewhat modern. The themes in these two operas, she said, could likely work in any time period.
“I think it is really just a testament to the fact that these emotions are 100 percent universal,” Faircloth said. “Families have always been greedy and jealous, and husbands and wives have always had struggles.”
If you go …
What: Utah Opera’s “Pagliacci/Gianni Schicchi”
When: March 10-18
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $15-$100