Whether among artists, works, performances, or productions, many relationships in the Performing Arts are founded upon far more tenuous connections than those between Ruggero Leoncavallo’s frequently-performed 1892 verismo potboiler Pagliacci and Sergei Rachmaninov’s prize-winning but considerably less-familiar Aleko of the same year. With stories of ill-fated marriages and infidelities in communities with social strata that isolate them from broader humanity, both operas depict environments in which intellectual, spiritual, and sensual oppression explode in life-altering—and life-ending—series of events. Recalling Metropolitan Opera productions in the first half of the Twentieth Century that paired unlikely bedfellows like Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Richard Strauss’s Salome, Opera Carolina’s production of Pagliacci and Aleko celebrated the thematic links between the scores without attempting to force the music into manufactured stylistic bonds. Perhaps the boldest innovation of Opera Carolina’s efforts was the astute but unaffected scrutiny of how homologous situations are portrayed by vastly different cultures. Though both scores were first performed in the same year, its setting and, to an extent, Rachmaninov’s music give Aleko the provenance of an earlier work, and performing Aleko as the first half of the evening handily increased appreciation of the competing evolution and devolution of societal attitudes towards morality and violence. As is almost always the case with Opera Carolina performances, however, one could simply bask in the profusion of beautiful sounds that poured from both stage and pit. These are the relationships, those among voices and instruments, that make operatic evenings in Charlotte so memorable.

Thoughtfully directed by Michael Capasso with close attention to both the similarities and the differences between the scores, Opera Carolina’s production—the first fully-staged presentation of Rachmaninov’s opera in the United States—went a step further than most productions of the traditional pairing of Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusticana by essentially uniting Leoncavallo’s and Rachmaninov’s scores as unexpectedly symmetrical halves of a single entity, much in the manner of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, originally performed as a double bill with his Trouble in Tahiti, in its final, three-act form absorbing the earlier work. Rather than stand-alone works punctuated by Intermezzi, Pagliacci and Aleko therefore became acts in a continuous drama, separated by an interval but clearly invested with common musical and dramatic impetus. That the concept was successful was confirmed by the cumulative momentum that was generated in the opening bars of Rachmaninov’s music and maintained until the playing of the final chords of Leoncavallo’s score. Enhanced by richly evocative costume designs by Baltimore-based AT Jones and Sons, Inc. and lighting designs of the acumen expected from Michael Baumgarten, the sharply-contrasted but wholly complementary stagings of Aleko and Pagliacci spotlit the potent common ground upon which these gripping operas tread.

It is easy to make too much of the fact that Rachmaninov composed Aleko as an exercise for his matriculation from Moscow’s famed Conservatory and thus to dismiss or misunderstand the opera solely as a student work. That the opera is the work of a student cannot be denied, but Aleko is no product of dry academia. It is interesting to note that Tchaikovsky was in the audience for the première of Aleko at the Moscow Conservatory on 19 May 1892: he is certain to have noticed the prominent influence of hisYevgeny Onegin and Pikovaya dama, both sharing with Aleko roots in the work of Alexander Pushkin, in Rachmaninov’s music. Though not fully bearing the imprint of Rachmaninov’s singular mature style, Aleko makes extraordinary demands on principals, choristers, orchestra, and conductor, and Opera Carolina’s performance met these demands with universal finesse. In the opera’s Introduction, the company’s General Director and Principal Conductor James Meena revealed anew why he is such an integral component of Opera Carolina’s success, bolstering the cast’s work with momentous but always supportive conducting that displayed attention both to details of individual scenes and to the construction of each opera—and the presentation of both operas—as a whole.

From the opening bars of the Gypsies’ chorus, ‘Как вольность весел наш ночлет и мирный сон под небесами, между колесами телег, полузавешанных коврами,’ the Opera Carolina Chorus proved that their singing of Russian text is in no way inferior to their red-blooded declamations of Italian and German in recent productions of Turandot and Fidelio. The narratives of this and all of the choral interjections in Aleko were handled expertly, making the structure of the free-willed society into which Aleko has been adopted apparent to the audience.

Heard at Opera Carolina for the first time in this production, bass Kevin Thompson recounted the Old Gypsy’s Tale, ‘Волшебной силой песнопенья в туманной памяти моей вдруг оживляются виденья то светлых, то печальных дней,’ with gravitas and solid, impactful tone that rushed through the theatre like a bracing wind from the steppes. In the Moderato espressivo section, he braved the repeated Cs at the top of the stave and the galvanizing top E♭ without the slightest hint of stress, and his timbre when singing Russian vowels combined the resonance of George London with the tonal orotundity of Mark Reizen. Mourning the murdered Zemfira in the opera’s final scene, Thompson plunged below the stave to the kind of primal sound that one associates with Russian Orthodox monastic chanting. With recent political developments in North Carolina prominent in nationwide discourse, it was impossible not to attribute to Thompson’s muscular declamation of the line stating that the gypsies make no cruel laws an artistic plea for acceptance and understanding. The only regret inspired by Thompson’s singing was that Leoncavallo did not provide the bass with a suitable rôle in Pagliacci.

Муж и жена: Baritone Alexey Lavrov as Aleko (left) and soprano Elizabeth Caballero as Zemfira (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Aleko, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]

In Aleko’s scene with chorus, ‘Да как же ты не поспешил тотчас вослед неблагодарной и хищнику и ей, коварной, кинжала в сердце не вонзил,’ strikingly handsome young baritone Alexey Lavrov scaled the heights of his music’s high tessitura with every appearance of comfort. Singing and acting with conviction throughout the performance, he was an Aleko whose alienation within the gypsy fraternity was palpable and whose musicality throughout the compass of the part was unimpeachable.

Fronting the respective women’s and men’s dances, Marina Shanefelter and Alexandr Buryak offered splendid approximations of authentic folk dances from the Caucasus region, temporarily transporting the Charlotte audience some miles to the northwest to the venues of Folkmoot, North Carolina’s annual international dance festival. Their invigorating dancing was followed by the chorus’s riveting singing of the gypsies’ ‘Огни погашены.’

In the brief but impassioned duettino for the Young Gypsy and Zemfira, tenor Jason Karn and Opera Carolina débutante sopranoElizabeth Caballero sang fantastically, Karn infusing ‘Еще одно, одно лобзанье!’ with ardor and soaring to top C with panache and vocal abandon. In Zemfira’s cradle scene, Caballero voiced ‘Старый муж, грозный муж, режь меня, жги меня: я тверда, не боюсь ни ножа, ни огня’ arrestingly, negotiating the repeated top B♭s with apt freedom. Reflecting on his loss of his wife’s love, Lavrov sang Aleko’s cavatina, ‘Бесь табор спит. Луна над ним полночной красотою блещет,’ with an exemplary adherence to abel canto line even in the music’s most exacting passages. The young baritone’s vocal security suffused his performance of the cavatina with suavity, lending credibility to his portrayal of Aleko as a virile man still viable as a combatant in the battle for Zemfira’s affection.

Meena lavished near-Wagnerian grandeur on his conducting of the Intermezzo, matched by the orchestra’s sumptuous playing. Then, singing from the wings, Karn intoned the Young Gypsy’s Romance, ‘Взгляни: под отдаленным сводом гуляет вольная луна,’ handsomely, effortlessly projecting the extended top A and and a beautiful B♭. Joined by Zemfira in the frenzied duet ‘Пора, мой милый, пора,’ Karn’s and Caballero’s voices intertwined with blistering amatory tension broken only by the slashing of Aleko’s blade. Defying her husband to the end, Caballero’s Zemfira died hurling bitter reproaches with her final breath. The gypsies’ plaintive ‘О чем шумят?’ and ‘Мы робки и добры душой,’ eloquently sung by the chorus, suggested that Zemfira’s adulterous spirit, an inherited trait, rendered her as much an outcast within her own community as Aleko: her death at her husband’s hand was the fulfillment of the destiny of which her adopted father sang when recounting the dolorous tale of his own jilting by Zemfira’s mother. The care expended on this production of Aleko was confirmed by the casting of an artist of the calibre of Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura in the small but pivotal rôle of the Gypsy Woman, whose lines Mishura sang with resilient authority. Lavrov’s voicing of Aleko’s final lament of again finding himself alone, unloved and unwanted, the character bathed in soft light as he gazed sadly out into the house, surrounded by people but insurmountably separated from them, was heartbreaking. He lived but was in spirit no less dead than the victims of his jealousy at his feet.

Ecco la commedia: Baritone Giovanni Guagliardo as Tonio (left) and soprano Elizabeth Caballero as Nedda (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’sPagliacci, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]

In Pagliacci’s celebrated Prologo, the Charlotte audience made the acquaintance of the chameleonic, dangerous Tonio of Italian baritone Giovanni Guagliardo, a singer born into the tradition of Apollo Granforte, Aldo Protti, Tito Gobbi, and Ettore Bastianini. Voicing ‘Si può? Si può? Signore! Signori!’ with mock chivalry, Guagliardo started the performance auspiciously, his singing of ‘Un nido di memorie in fondo a l’anima cantava un giorno’ pulsating with artistic wonder. In the melodically fecund Andante cantabile, ‘E voi, piuttosto che le nostre povere gabbane d’istrioni,’ the baritone’s voice glowed. His rise to the traditional top G was strained, and he wisely omitted the A♭, also an interpolation: Leoncavallo’s wisdom should more often prevail, excluding these notes that bring so many singers to grief unnecessarily. Throughout Pagliacci, though, Guagliardo’s singing was an asset, the character’s jealous viciousness emerging with the power of Verdi’s Iago’s manipulation of Otello as the catalyst for the unstoppable chain reaction that ultimately leads to tragedy.

Welcoming Canio and his Commedia dell’arte troupe to the unspecified provincial town in which the opera’s drama, here transplanted into the 1950s, plays out, the chorus sang ‘Son qua!’ excitingly and received in reply from tenor Jeff Gwaltney’s flinty Canio an equally pulse-quickening statement of ‘Itene al diavolo,’ his top G♯ a thrilling tone. The contrast with fellow tenorJason Karn’s Beppe facilitated distinguishing the characters’ utterances, but Karn’s voice was more substantial than those of many of his rivals in Beppe’s music. He voiced ‘To! To! birichino’ energetically and with obvious humor. Gwaltney’s account of Canio’s ‘Un grande spettacolo a ventitrè ore’ was a captivating sales pitch for his company’s show, but here and in the duration of the performance the voice was often weak when strength counted most. Guagliardo’s menacing delivery of Tonio’s ‘La pagherai! brigante!’ was wonderful and established a mood of disquiet before Canio’s Adagio molto con grande espressione ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi,’ which Gwaltney phrased with emotion and crowned with a steady top A. Giving telling dramatic significance to Nedda’s ‘Confusa io son,’ Caballero was from the start a figure who was clearly out of place among the rough-hewn Canio and Tonio. Dissolving the atmosphere of Canio’s reverie, Gwaltney fired off the reprise of ‘A ventitrè ore’ with steely resolve. The choristers ended the scene with a grand reading of the Chorus of the Bells, rousingly pealing out the distinctive rhythms of the Andantino grazioso ‘Don Din Don.’

With her electric singing of the Andante con moto ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guardo,’ Caballero announced herself as a Nedda in the now-little-remembered tradition of Clara Petrella and Aureliana Beltrami. The Ballatella, ‘Hui! Hui!…Stridono lassù liberamente lanciati a vol,’ a number that defeats many otherwise well-qualified singers, held no terrors for Caballero, her trills and long-held top A♯ disclosing the benefits of a solid bel canto technique in verismo music. In the chilling duet with Tonio, Caballero’s Nedda attempted to maintain a light touch, her vocalism in ‘Sei là? credea che te ne fossi andato!’ buoyant but infused with expressive depth. Trying to woo Nedda with even less skill for it than Beckmesser in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg possesses, Guagliardo exhibited admirable restraint in ‘È colpa del tuo canto,’ but there was genuine feeling—and a genuine line—in his delivery of the Cantabile sostenuto ‘So ben che difforme, contorto son io.’ Caballero’s Nedda quashed Tonio’s advances with fury in a voicing of the Sostenuto assai ‘Hai tempo a ridirmelo stassera, se brami!’ that bristled with scorn and horror. This was all the more visceral as the soprano’s beautiful face registered pity for her would-be suitor before his violence hardened her heart. The scene also yielded a bit of practical advice for any Tonio who encounters her Nedda in future: Caballero wields a whip with the unerring aim of Annie Oakley.

In the magnificent duet for Nedda and Silvio, Caballero was reunited with Lavrov, now singing Leoncavallo’s music as opulently as he interpreted Rachmaninov’s difficult music for Aleko. Caballero’s deliberate enunciation of ‘Silvio! a quest’ora che imprudenza!’ quaked with fear, but her trepidation was calmed by the plangent vocalism of her Silvio. Lavrov phrased the Andantino amoroso ‘Decidi il mio destin’ with moving simplicity, his top notes unfailingly on their marks but organically integrated into the vocal line. In Silvio’s arms, Nedda was transformed from a frumpy, barefoot housewife into a vibrantly erotic creature yearning to be an object of desire rather than possession. Caballero and Lavrov combined their voices hypnotically: in this performance, the couple failing to notice Tonio spying on their lovemaking was wholly credible, particularly as Guagliardo was careful to lurk and eventually guide Canio to the scene of the lovers’ rendezvous without creating a commotion. The score leaves no doubt that Leoncavallo sympathized with Nedda’s and Silvio’s illicit love: singing their duet so mesmerizingly, Caballero and Silvio engaged the audience’s hearts, too.

Ridi, Pagliaccio: Tenor Jeff Gwaltney as Canio in Opera Carolina’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]

Beginning with a pained but poetic articulation of the recitative ‘Recitar! Mentre presso dal delirio non so più quel che dico e quel che faccio,’ Gwaltney approached Canio’s oft-abused Adagio arioso ‘Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina’ with dignity befitting a dedicated thespian. Eschewing the bawling, shouting, and face-pulling that push many tenors’ performances of the scene into the realm of parody, Gwaltney phrased ‘Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amere infranto!’ with musical and dramatic integrity, preserving the flow of the melodic line even in his ascents to the top As, which were projected with greater ease than his earlier excursions into the upper register. Still, there was a measure of caution apparent in his singing. Perhaps the season’s pernicious allergies were hounding him. Nevertheless, he gave a fine performance of one of opera’s most familiar scenes.

Like its cousin in Aleko, Pagliacci’s Intermezzo was played superbly by the Charlotte Symphony, and Meena’s mastery of the endangered art of rubato was put to use in his pacing of the restatement in the Intermezzo of the lyrical theme from the opera’s Prologue. In both Aleko and Pagliacci, the Symphony’s playing was exemplary, exceeding even the ensemble’s own high standards in previous Opera Carolina productions. The musicians’ performances of both scores in Thursday evening’s double bill were distinguished by lushly Romantic but controlled string figurations, virtually blemish-free brass playing, and rhythmic vitality that wrung every iota of dramatic sagacity from Meena’s well-considered, propulsive tempi.

In Leoncavallo’s Act Two, the choristers again set the stage for the drama to come, articulating ‘Presto! Presto affrettiamoci’ with unstinting immediacy and anticipation. Launching her troupe’s light-hearted commedia, Caballero’s Nedda purred and posed delightfully in Colombina’s ‘Pagliaccio, mio marito a tarda nottoe sol ritornerà,’ and Karns crooned Arlecchino’s serenata, ‘O Colombina, il tenero fido Arlecchin è a te vicin,’ elastically. In the scena comica between Colombina and Taddeo, Guagliardo bawled ‘Dei, come è bella!’ with the grace of a stampeding herd of oxen. Caballero was the embodiment of overripe feminine charm in the Tempo di Gavotta, ‘Guarda, amor mio, che splendida cenetta preparai,’ sweetly flirting with Arlecchino in her guise as Colombina. Even before he uttered his first words, it was evident that Canio was not in character as Pagliaccio: his anger exacerbated by frequent draughts from his flask, Canio’s rage was in search of an outlet. Gwaltney roared the Andante mosso ‘Vo’ il nome de l’amante tuo,’ but there was intense sadness beneath the damning ire in his well-sung ‘No! Pagliaccio non son,’ his top A♭s firm and on pitch. Gwaltney’s finest singing of the evening was in the Cantabile ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva,’ which the tenor negotiated with vigor despite ducking the written top B♭. His burly bullying was answered by Caballero’s fearless top Bs when refusing to reveal Silvio’s identity. Gwaltney pronounced Canio’s ‘La commedia è finita’ not so much to the audience as to himself, succinctly drawing a parallel with Aleko in the sense that even in his murderous savagery he loved his wife. The most profound tragedy of this Pagliacci was that Canio’s brutality was not the product of a moment of demented choler but the sole culmination of a troubled relationship perceptible to a mind bent by jealousy.

Opera Carolina productions often succeed in provoking through without ignoring musical values, and the company’s double bill ofAleko and Pagliacci further expanded the practical efficacy of using opera as a tool to excavate the foundations upon which contemporary artistic and social trends are fabricated. The compelling truth at the heart of this performance of Aleko andPagliacci was that violence is perpetrated not only by weapons but also, often more destructively, by words and emotions. By casting the production’s foremost vocal powerhouses, Elizabeth Caballero and Alexey Lavrov, as both Rachmaninov’s Zemfira and Aleko and Leoncavallo’s Nedda and Silvio, Opera Carolina accentuated the poignancy with which universal sentiments are refracted through the wondrous prism of music.