Sunday, January 5, 2014

Pagliacci – The Circus Princess (Amore Opera)

By Harry Forbes

It’s rare that the flavorful Viennese operettas of Emmerich Kalman get an airing around these parts, and when, once every few years, one is mounted, it’s usually “Countess Maritza” or “The Gypsy Princess,” his masterworks.

So Amore Opera is to be greatly commended for putting on “Die Zirkusprincessin” (“The Circus Princess”). Even if not quite in the league of the others mentioned, the work is filled with lively, stirring melodies, and has not been heard in New York since the 1920s.

On this occasion, Julius Brammer and Alfred Grunwald’s original three-act libretto has been neatly adapted and abridged by Amore head Nathan Hull, with English lyrics by Adam Carstairs.

Furthermore, it has been paired with the Leoncavallo’s extravagantly tuneful, clown-themed “Pagliacci,” an idea that probably sounded better on paper, despite Hull shoehorning a few cursory references to the latter into the opening dialogue. In any event, the double-bill made for a rather long evening.

However, matters of length aside, “Pagliacci” was highly satisfying in every respect. Isaac Grier as Tonio got the evening off to a compelling start with his richly vocalized prologue. Paolo Buffagni, despite some announced vocal issues that later prevented him taking the lead in “Circus Princess,” sang impressively as jealous husband Canio, earning cheers for his “Vesti la giubba,” and Megan Nielson acted and vocalized strongly as cheating wife Nedda. Gustavo Morales as lover Silvio and Ki-Taek Song as Beppe were also top-drawer. Hull’s direction brought out the requisite hot-blooded dramatic elements. And conductor Gregory Ortega led the orchestra in a lush, dramatic reading.

His forces were on less solid ground with “Circus Princess,” however. The tempo of the opening bars were rather plodding, and what followed both onstage and in the pit was more than a little chaotic. Kevin Courtemanche, an alternate Canio, gamely essayed the heroic role of Mister X, reading his lines and lyrics from index cards, but despite the understandable tentativeness, sang impressively. Mister X is a circus aerialist who falls for the Merry Widow-like titular heroine, played at my performance by Sofia Dimitrova who was, like others in the cast, frequently overpowered by the orchestra, though she generally sang with sensitivity. The secondary comic couple roles were taken by Dorothy Smith Jacobs (Mabel) and Daniel Kerr (Tony), neither quite right physically or dramatically, but handling their songs pleasantly enough.

Supporting roles were more satisfyingly played by David Seatter as a conniving prince with designs on the princess himself, Jeff Kurnit as the circus owner, Thomas Geib as Baron Rasumovsky, Carla Schlumberger as Kerr’s mother, and William Remmers as the prince’s sidekick.

Glamor and charm, elements so essential in this repertoire, were largely absent. (Courtemanche, for instance, registered as more Wallace Shawn than Rudolf Schock or Fritz Wunderlich), but even so, it was a treat to see how the piece – known to operetta buffs mostly from CD – plays out on stage, and Hull’s dialogue was more creditable and less hokey than that of the Met’s new “Die Fledermaus.”

Despite the roughness of some elements, Kalman’s melodies still managed to captivate. Courtemanche delivered Mister X’s famous opening number, “Two Eyes of Magic” (“Wei Marchenaugen”) more than capably, joined Seatter and the other men for a rousing Hussar number (the liveliest of the evening), while Jacobs and Kerr scored with their “I’m Off to Hollywood” number.

I don’t know how much liberty may have been taken with the dialogue, but the plot mirrored the original faithfully, apart from some unobjectionable embellishments in the denouement.

Let’s hope Amore revisits more of this repertoire in future seasons. In the meantime, I look forward to their “Madama Butterfly” and “The Mikado,” the latter with a children’s cast, both slated for May.

(Amore Opera, Connelly Theatre, 220 E. 4th St.; or 866-811-4111; through Jan. 5)

Photo: Shuping Lu
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