When the verismo style hit stages in Italy, people took notice.
For the first time, opera left the realm of fairy tales and historical figures, focusing instead on the problems of normal people. And one of the most well-known verismo operas is Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” which Virginia Opera is bringing to town this weekend.
“‘Pagliacci’ was one of the very first operas that dealt with real-life issues,” says Clay Hilley, who plays Canio in the show. “There’s nothing about it that’s unrelatable. It’s a very real story about infidelity and revenge and murder.”
While “Pagliacci” often is paired with Pietro Mascagni’s verismo one-act, “Cavalleria rusticana,” Virginia Opera is doing something different. Instead, the opera company is staging a double-header with Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins.”
“We really wanted to give our audiences something they’d never seen before,” says Virginia Opera’s conductor, Adam Turner. “They’re short. It’s all in how you pair them. ‘Pagliacci’ is great for a first-timer, if they’ve never been. It’s going to snag them right away, because of the emotion and the intense music and the high drama.”
“Pagliacci” tells the tale of a group of performers putting on a commedia dell’arte play about adultery. Offstage, the group’s leader, Canio, realizes that his wife’s infidelities aren’t confined to the character she plays, and that she’s in love with a villager. Overcome with anger, he seeks revenge.
“I catch my wife in an affair,” Hilley says, “and it’s all downhill from there.”
Turner says the music is unforgettable, and has a hint of Puccini.
“It’s very lush and robust and romantic and sweet,” he says. “All the emotions are just laid out there, and you hear that romanticism in orchestration and the sung lines. It’s very emotional and very emotionally gripping. It will pull your heartstrings.”
The evening also will include the 35-minute one-act, “The Seven Deadly Sins.” This production marks the first time in Virginia Opera’s 42-year history that it will perform a work by German composer Weill. The “sung ballet” marks Weill’s last collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, with whom he created “The Threepenny Opera.”
Set in Depression-era America, the work features two women named Anna who venture out to raise money for their family. Anna I is a singer and Anna II is a dancer, though it seems unclear whether they’re supposed to be sisters or two sides of the same person. In each city they visit, the Annas encounter a different sin. Wrath is found in Los Angeles. Lust is encountered in Boston.
“It’s harsh, it’s brutal, it’s passionate, it’s beautiful,” says Ute Gfrerer, an internationally renowned Weill specialist who’s starring in her American operatic debut. “It has it all. It’s really a fantastic piece.”
Rarely performed, Gfrerer says the show has “incredible harmonies” and tells an incredibly sad story.
“We’ve tried to earn money and we actually succeed,” Gfrerer says of her character. “We finally come back to Louisiana, and there’s nothing there. There’s no house, and it was all for nothing. The dream that we dreamed and kept us alive, kept us going, is actually shattered, and it basically broke us.” S
Virginia Opera’s “The Seven Deadly Sins” and “Pagliacci” run Oct. 14 and 16 at the Dominion Arts Center, 600 E. Grace St. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.