Local Arts

Infidelity, followed by killing, times 2

In its last show of the season, Opera Carolina puts together Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko” – which is a U.S. premiere – in an innovative double bill. What do you need to know?

[Think you don't know anything about 'Pagliacci'? You are so wrong.]

The plot

Aging Russian husband goes berserk, stabs young wife and lover.

Aging Italian husband goes berserk, stabs young wife and lover.

Yep, the double bill relies on that soap opera staple of late 19th-century opera: marital infidelity, followed by tragedy.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s opera takes place in a gypsy camp, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s in a small Italian town. But they share similarities: Both were composed in 1892, take place over less than one day, are about nomads – traveling gypsies in one, traveling commedia dell’arte performers in the other – and take place without intermission.

They belong to the verismo tradition, which William Schoell defines in “The Opera of the Twentieth Century” as focusing “on the average contemporary man and woman and their problems, generally of a sexual, romantic, or violent nature.”

Bloody well right there, mate.

The music

One artist created a vocal volcano of emotion; the other steeped his drama in smoldering, threatening intensity.

“What I’m hoping audiences will get out of this is (the stimulation of) seeing two operas that have similar stories, but have completely different approaches musically and dramatically. I think they’ll be interested and intrigued by that – in addition to being moved,” says James Meena, Opera Carolina’s general director.

Though Leoncavallo wrote about Italian villagers and Rachmaninoff depicted a gypsy camp in Eastern Europe, they had similar models in mind. “Aleko” and “Pagliacci” display striking parallels, Meena adds, but their distinctive traits are sometimes the most vivid in the same passages:

Broken heart: Each opera reaches its first climax about midway through, when the man who has been two-timed – the title character in “Aleko,” the actor Canio in “Pagliacci” – bewails what has happened to him. Yet the characters’ arias contrast vividly. Canio’s voice wells up in despair; Aleko’s when he thinks back to happy times with his beloved Zamfira.

Canio’s “Vesti la giubba” is one of the most famous outcries in opera – “completely heart-on-the-sleeve,” Meena says. The music peaks as Canio, preparing to go onstage in a comedy, sings, “Laugh, clown, at your broken love! Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!” Aleko’s soliloquy goes for quiet intensity. It’s “introspective and melancholy and subdued,” Meena says. “It’s about suffering.”

If you’d like a taste, Meena recommends YouTube videos of Mario del Monaco, an Italian fireball of the 1950s, in the “Paglacci” aria, and Russia’s Yevgeny Nesterenko in “Aleko.”

The orchestra chimes in: Canio’s and Aleko’s arias both lead to orchestral interludes that set up the operas’ final scenes. In “Pagliacci,” the orchestra carries Canio’s aria to a glowering finish, then reprises some of the first scenes’ melodies – including echoes of Canio’s lament.

In “Aleko,” too, the orchestra caps off the protagonist’s aria. But it then offers a respite from the heartbreak through its lilting, ethereal interlude. “You can almost see the Russian steppes as you hear it,” Meena says.

On YouTube, Meena likes conductor Herbert von Karajan and Italy's La Scala Orchestra in the “Pagliacci” interlude and the Berlin Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel in “Aleko.”

Serenade: In both operas, a character portrayed by a tenor serenades his sweetheart, and this is where the greatest similarity appears. During the play-within-a-play that sweeps “Pagliacci” to its tragic finish, the comic Arlecchino calls out to his beloved Colombina. In “Aleko,” the young gypsy who steals Aleko’s Zemfira sings to her about the fickleness of love. Both arias are tuneful and lilting, as befits the seductive situations.

Here, Meena recommends two stylish tenors: Spain’s Alfredo Kraus in “Pagliacci” and Poland’s Piotr Beczala in “Aleko.” Their artistry points up the biggest kinship between Leoncavallo and Rachmaninoff: They both wrote great tunes. And in opera, isn’t that as big a deal as love, infidelity and revenge?

‘Pagliacci’ and ‘Aleko’

When: April 10, 14 and 16.

Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $19-$150.

Details: 704-332-7177; www.operacarolina.org.