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'Pagliacci' Returns To Detroit Opera After 27 Year Absence

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What's not to like about a mad, sad, murderous clown?

The Michigan Opera Theatre is amidst its production of "Pagliacci" at the Detroit Opera House. Opening night was last weekend and there are three more performances May 18, 19 and 20.

The opera, by Ruggero Leoncavallo and written in 1892, has been a mainstay of opera houses for over a century with history's great tenors each trying to make the broken-hearted clown their own. It was considered the signature role of the great Enrico Caruso. Luciano Pavarotti also played it numerous times.

It is also a frequently parodied role, perhaps because of our culture's love-hate relationship with clowns. An episode of "Seinfeld," for example, centered on a production of "Pagliacci," with a nemesis of Jerry Seinfeld's donning the clown suit while the cast was actually attending a production of the opera.

For those who have not seen the opera, which has not been performed in Detroit since 1985, the story revolves around Canio, a traveling clown with a show about a man whose wife, Nedda, is having an affair. But the lovely Nedda is having an actual affair. And during one of the show's performances, Canio veers from acting to real life, demanding that Nedda tell him the identity of her lover before fatally stabbing her. In her dying breath, she asks her lover, Silvio, to help her. With that information, the cuckolded clown stabs Silvio with the same knife. Nobody lives happier ever after here.

Pagliacci is a short opera, compared to many others, taking just two hours to perform with one intermission. It is often performed with another one-act opera, "Cavalleria Rusticana" by Mascagni. But the MOT did not do that, making it, frankly, a breezier evening of opera -- something a reviewer rarely gets to write.

Tenor Antonello Palombi, who performed the lead role on May 16, shares it with John Pickle, who will play the lead on May 18 and 20. Palombi, a former policeman in Florence, Italy, who was discovered at age 20, does a solid performance as Canio. It is not Palombi's first trip to Detroit, having previously played Radames in "Aida" at the MOT. Being an American tenor, Pickle gives a different look and feel to the role, in addition to his powerful voice.

Soprano Jill Gardner makes her MOT debut as Nedda, and does an excellent job of conveying the passionate, manipulative and often scornful Nedda with whom Canio, Silvio and her co-star in the traveling show, Tonio, are all obsessed.

Kudos to director Bernard Uzan who has tinkered with the oft-performed opera to give it some new energy. There is a 10-minute pantomime at the start of the second act, a device Uzan first tried at The Seattle Opera in 2008, that is meant to be a flashback scene telling the backstory of how Canio discovered Nedda as a starving orphan. It shows the sort of Pygmalion relationship between the two. Uzan borrowed the music for the scene from Leoncavallo's "Zaza" to keep it true to the author/composer's own hand.

"Pagliacci" shows 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 18-19, and 2:30 p.m. May 20 at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit. Tickets $29-$121. Call 313-237-7464 or visit www.motopera.org.