It's all fun and games 'til somebody's cheating ass gets stabbed through the heart. That, more or less, is the moral of Pagliacci, Ruggero Leoncavallo's iconic one-hit wonder of an opera.
There's no scene in opera history more famous than the one where Canio, a beloved clown, confronts his hateful clothes and his ridiculous makeup, and tells himself to put on the costume, ruffles and all, and to go out on the stage and laugh for the crowd — laugh in spite of heartbreaking disappointment and swelling homicidal rage. The image, tragic and terrifying as it is, has been referenced and parodied on countless occasions and used to sell everything from Taco Bell tacos to Rice Krispies Treats.
Pagliacci is an especially good opera for beginners. For starters, it's short, packing a lot of tragic action into 90 minutes. It's also a leading example of opera verismo, or "realistic opera," which, of course, sounds like an oxymoron. In response to operas about gods and kings and weird mythological creatures, the verismo movement aimed to bring a bit of realism to the least realistic of all theatrical forms. These grittier works focused on sensational "slice-of-life" stories, and often depicted scenes of graphic violence.
Opera Memphis' colorful and fast-paced production makes the most of a large chorus that fills the stage and cheers convincingly for their favorite clown while jugglers pitch their rings and acrobats tumble. The show features Memphis favorites like Matt Worth and Jennifer Goode performing alongside "Neapolitan powerhouse" Marco Nisticò.
Opera Memphis presents "Pagliacci" at Germantown Performing Arts Center, October 9th-10th, 7:30 p.m. $33-$84. operamemphis.org