The great achievement of Opera Idaho and Ballet Idaho's productions of Igor Stravinsky's "Pulcinella Suite" and Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, which debuted March 1 at the Egyptian Theatre, was getting the two performances—two operas wildly different in tone and theme—to occupy the same world. According to the program, conductor Timm Rolek brought the two together because the "Pulcinella Suite" and the "Prologue" from Pagliacci are in the same key.
However tenuous the relationship, the union was successful, and the production radiated the enthusiasm and easy humor of Pulcinella and successfully pivoted to the milk-curdling brood-fest that is Pagliacci.
Andrew Taft played Pulcinella, a ne'er-do-good who fakes his own death and is (briefly) chastened by the woman he loves, along with all his identically dressed friends. The success of this performance hinged on the simplicity of the story and the limited development of the characters. It has no plot twists or overarching message, only a gently unfolding of events and stock characters engaging each other in bawdy antics, always ready with a wink and a nod to the audience.
Pulcinella drew to a close when the supply of shenanigans ran dry, rather than when the story itself drew to a close, paving the way for the meat and potatoes of the evening, Pagliacci, the story of Nedda (Emily Newton), the unfaithful wife of Canio, the real-world persona of the famous theater clown Pagliaccio (Christopher Bengochea). When she spurns the advances of the not sufficiently wicked Tonio (Daniel Scofield), opting instead to remain with her lover, Silvio (Jason Detwiler), her infidelity is leaked to her husband, who kills her—while both are wearing full clown get-ups—during one of his clown acts in front of an audience.
The opera is densely psychological, and Bengochea played Canio with the kind of manic intensity you'd expect from a man slowly convincing himself that he should stab his wife to death and then kill her lover when he rushes to her aid. When Canio first breaks the character of Pagliaccio before an on-stage audience of Italian peasants, he cast a wild-eyed gaze out into the real audience that elicited gasps.
Where the production had almost superhuman focus and composure in the face of challenging subject material, the audience did not. Errant clapping, occasional exclamations from the peanut gallery and, right where the opera's famous final line ("La Commedia e finita!" or, "The comedy is finished!") should have been, someone in the back caused a racket by dropping a plastic plate or a sippy cup or something, drawing attention away from the stage.