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'I Pagliacci' is blessed with big voices

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New Opera St. Louis is a small company with heart - and with the right priorities.

Those priorities, as demonstrated in last weekend's production of Ruggiero Leoncavallo's short verismo classic "I Pagliacci (The Clowns)," are voice, voice and more voice. On Saturday night at the Missouri History Museum, the fledgling company assembled a fine trio of singers in the pivotal roles.

Outside the museum, a juggler on stilts tossed flaming torches through the air and greeted patrons with "Buona sera!" Inside the auditorium, a simple but effective set shared the stage with the orchestra,

"Pagliacci" is a near-perfect composition, telling the tragic story of a commedia dell'arte troupe in a life-reflects-art setting: the clown Canio; his wife, Nedda; the malicious hunchback Tonio; and Nedda's lover, Silvio. It demands big voices, and dramatic commitment from all concerned.

It had a most impressive Canio in tenor Gary Seydell. He brought ringing high notes and convincing intensity to the role. Baritone Camilo Mendoza is young, but his is a fine voice, dark and seemingly made for menace as Tonio. His marked lack of deformity and a limp that came and went made nonsense of some of the text.

Gina Galati wears two hats with the company - artistic director and prima donna - and her Nedda was dramatically strong, with a clear, lovely voice. Tenor Charles Martinez was appealing as sympathetic clown Peppe. Baritone John Frederick's Silvio was a handsome figure, but he seemed to be in some vocal distress. Director James Marvel missed some bets, but kept things moving.

Scott Schoonover conducted with feeling but needed more energy; the orchestra was scrappy. The decision to insert an intermission into such a brief evening was inexplicable.

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