Celestial Opera Company is back with Cav/Pag in South Pas

Celestial Opera Company returned to the stage this spring with the classic double-bill pairing of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci.  Executive director Judith Townsend assembled a full team to relaunch the company after a nearly three-year hiatus, with Andrea Renée Fuentes as Artistic Director and Producer; Timothy León as Musical Director; and Josh Shaw as Stage Director. Performing at the South Pasadena Woman’s Club, the hall was filled with enthusiastic supporters eagerly awaiting their favorites from the operatic repertoire.

Elizabeth Ackerman as Santuzza and Chris Jones as Alfio.

The evening opened with the music of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (“Rustic chivalry”), its romantic melodies emerging from the piano under the capable hands of Timothy León, with the help of a marvelous chamber orchestra consisting of William Robey on flute, Gilbert Bottcher on clarinet, Angela Romero on trumpet, David Sarachene on bassoon and Ronald Walcott on cello. The small ensemble added depth and brilliance to the accompaniment without overpowering the singers.

Qian Wang

As Turridu, Qian Wang’s robust tenor filled the hall, youthful and confident, indifferent to Santuzza’s agonies and impatient with the burden of responsibility she represented. Elizabeth Ackerman’s Santuzza conveyed the woeful circumstances of her life with a big, dramatic sound, particularly effective in her signature aria, “Voi lo sapete”. Her duet with Turridu, following Lola’s brief visit, was powerful and intense, the two well matched vocally in their passionate arguments. Turridu’s farewell to his mother (in seven flats!) was the communication of a man who knew he deserved to die and made no effort to avoid or prevent it.

Santuzza begs Mamma Lucia (sung by Marina Kesler) to help bring Turridu back to her.

Mamma Lucia, sung by Marina Kesler, brought the story to life with her easy and natural stage-presence, gorgeous tone quality and excellent projection. Chris Jones’ booming bass made light work of Alfio, the mule-cart driver, and Amanda Achen proved a delightful surprise as Lola, sassy and unrepentantly flirtatious (even on Easter morning) with a strong, free, resonant soprano that matched her character.

Amanda Achen as Lola

The chorus was well-rehearsed and enthusiastic, obviously enjoying their roles as villagers, fleshing out the dramatic context for the principals. The set was simple but effective, a plaza bordering the church and Mamma Lucia’s café, with all the action taking place in the open space defined by the buildings.

Originally paired with Cavalleria by the Metropolitan Opera in 1893, just a year after Pagliacci was completed and three years after the other’s  first performance, the combo has proven immensely satisfying to audiences for over 100 years. Each opera is a verismo gem about infidelity and vengeance, is under an hour in length, and contains a lovely jewel of an intermezzo separating the first and second acts. Plus, each was the most successful opera ever written by its respective composer.

In Celestial Opera’s production of Pagliacci, Tonio started the show by stepping out in front of drawn curtains into a spotlight, the chamber orchestra announcing him with a fanfare, to invite the audience to come to the “play within a play” in a prologue ironically predictive of the opera itself. Sung by Jay Stephenson in a bold, burnished bass, Tonio was charming and entertaining, the antithesis of the vengeful manipulator he would prove to be later in the opera. A lovely young lady from the LA Children’s Chorus stood beside him while he sang, holding oversize placards with simplified translations of his lyrics. In the absence of supertitles, the placards made a perfect translation aid for the audience.

Tonio spies on Nedda as she sings “Stridono lassu”

At the conclusion of the prologue, Tonio advised the audience that the performance would be presented NOT on the main stage where he was standing, but on a platform directly behind them, and recommended that everyone turn their chair around 180º to view the show. Sure enough, in the back of the hall a small stage had been erected during the few minutes that Tonio had been serenading the audience, with a back curtain composed of banners that rolled down from the second floor balcony to the floor of the main hall behind the stage, printed in a black and aqua diamond “harlequin” pattern. From this point on, supertitles were projected against the wall above the stage.

The mini-stage was particularly apt, as it suited the portable lifestyle of the acting troupe featured in the story. Designed to be set up or taken down in a few minutes, it looked like the type of platform nomadic performers would employ.  Local villagers ran out and greeted the troupe excitedly; amidst the joking and  banter, Canio emerged to whet the audience’s appetite with a brief description of the entertainment to come, cautioning them darkly that a comical betrayal of marital fidelity onstage was one thing, but if it were to happen offstage, that would be another story with a most unhappy ending!

Jay Stephenson as Tonio, Jon Lee Keenan as Peppe and Roberto Esquivelzeta as Canio
Robert Esquivelzeta
Robert Esquivelzeta

Robert Esquivelzeta presented an ideal character in his role as Canio –  a controlling and possessive man who physically dominated his wife, Nedda, and the other members of the troupe. His heroic tenor was strong and full of pathos, soaring in the high notes and thrilling in a memorable rendition of the famous aria, “Vesti la giubba”, which finished to a roar of approval from the audience. Nedda was sung by

Natalie Salins
Natalie Salins

Natalie Salins with a warm, dramatic soprano that rang from one end of the voice to the other, loaded with color and intensity. Their voices paired well and they kept the drama building steadily until the fateful finale.

Michael Bannett

Michael Bannett, a young baritone originally from San Francisco, performed the role of Silvio with a focused, smooth tone full of tenderness and warmth in the beautiful love duet with Nedda, a moment of idyllic peacefulness in the otherwise tumultuous tale. Jon Lee Keenan sang Peppe with his smooth, silky tenor, starting the wonderfully comical second act as Harlequino from a window of the upstairs gallery above the stage, plucking the strings of his ukelele and serenading the beautiful Columbina in her apartment below. While he sang, Columbina pulled props from a mysterious hand that reached through the back curtain, proffering every possible accoutrement from plates and tablecloths to rubber chickens. Spitting on the plates to clean them and rubbing them dry on her bouncy bosoms, Columbina set the table and “prepared” the chicken just as Harlequino descended to join her in a mock lovers’ supper. Great costumes (by Dayla McDonald) and makeup completed a convincing vaudevillian turn, the jokes silly and hugely entertaining, a welcome contrast from the dramatic tension that drove the opera from its beginning.

When Canio entered the play to discover the slapstick lovers’ rendezvous, Tonio slyly egged on Canio’s genuine underlying jealousy of Nedda and Silvio until he could not separate the play from the reality of Nedda’s betrayal, and their murder seemed his only possible solution. The climax was powerful and tragic, with the trumpet and piano accentuating its finality. The audience whooped and hollered in a satisfied acknowledgement of Celestial’s return to the stage.

Next up

Stay tuned for the Celestial Opera Company’s next production of “Der Fledermaus” on October 25, 2015 at the South Pasadena Woman’s Club.

Click here to visit Celestial Opera’s new website

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