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Opera review: Move over, Pennywise — Utah Opera's 'Pagliacci' is in town

"PAGLIACCI/GIANNI SCHICCHI," through March 18, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South (801-533-6683 or; running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (one intermission)

SALT LAKE CITY — When Canio discovers his wife, Nedda, has been unfaithful, he descends into a dangerous combination of grief and rage, and it’s at this moment we hear one of the most recognizable and classic arias in all of opera.

It happens near the end of Act 1 in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s two-act opera “Pagliacci.” Canio, who is preparing for his comedy troupe’s evening performance, pulls out his clown costume and begins to put on white makeup.

As he transforms into the clown Pagliaccio, he expresses through his emotional aria, “Vesti la giubba,” that he will turn heartache into jokes.

Even those not familiar with the opera can probably guess that doesn’t happen.

Perhaps this is why Utah Opera opted to pair a performance of the tragic “Pagliacci” with the comedic — even at times slapstick — one-act opera “Gianni Schicchi” by Giacomo Puccini. The pairing is a bit unconventional but proved successful Saturday night during the opening performance at Capitol Theatre.

While most in attendance were likely drawn in by the anticipation of “Pagliacci,” a classic opera that has even entered the pop culture realm via TV shows such as “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons,” audience members appeared just as enthralled with the humorous antics of “Gianni Schicchi,” courtesy of greedy family members feigning grief while searching for the will of their recently deceased — and tremendously wealthy — patriarch Buoso Donati.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a good laugh after witnessing an onstage murder.

Tenor Scott Piper powerfully portrayed the tormented Canio during the first performance of the evening. Although Canio expresses near the opera’s beginning that “the stage is one thing — real life is another,” he struggles to separate the pain of his wife’s real-life infidelity from her staged infidelity in his comedy troupe’s production. And while Nedda, portrayed by Utah native Marina Costa-Jackson, tries to keep things lighthearted, her husband’s blurring of lines leads to a tragic ending that makes the opera’s final line all the more eerie: “The comedy is over!”

The true comedy of the night began with “Gianni Schicchi,” which had the audience laughing as a group of relatives crowded around the bed of their dying patriarch, fake tears transforming into genuine tears of grief when they discover he has left all of his money to a monastery. Cue the crafty Gianni Schicchi who, moved by his daughter Lauretta’s plea, suggests they hide the body of the real Buoso Donati so that he might pose as the dying man and dictate a new will for the family. Wayne Tigges was both comedic and conniving in this role — his connivery this time a more entertaining extension of his earlier role as the villain Tonio in “Pagliacci.”

Costa-Jackson, who received some of the loudest applause of the night for her role as Nedda in “Pagliacci,” was equally stunning as Lauretta in “Gianni Schicchi.” Although the soprano was raised in Sandy and studied vocal performance at Utah State University and the University of Utah, her performance Saturday night marked her debut with Utah Opera. Portraying Gianni Schicchi’s daughter, Costa-Jackson moved audience members with her rendition of another well-known aria — “O Mio Babbino Caro” — her stirring performance of the piece garnering two separate rounds of applause.

Last year, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera announced its family pass, allowing a family of four to see specific performances for $30 throughout the season, with each additional child being added on for $5. This deal applies to “Pagliacci/Gianni Schicchi” on March 12 and 14, and while this is certainly a great opportunity for children to be exposed to the local performing arts scene, “Pagliacci” — with its clowns, adultery and murder — doesn’t seem to be a child’s most ideal introduction to opera.

However, Utah Opera’s pairing of this tragedy with the lighter “Gianni Schicchi” offered a nice contrast not only for the evening but for the season as a whole. The unique double-bill performance comes on the heels of the company’s performance of “Moby-Dick,” an innovative and condensed version of the thick novel that still clocked in at three hours. Performing two shorter and contrasting pieces instead of one long continuous production allows for greater attention spans — enticing for amateur and veteran operagoers alike. And while “Moby-Dick” proved that Utah Opera is more than ready to embrace a modern wave of opera, Saturday night’s performance showed there’s a reason we continue to return to some of the traditional operas of the past.

Content advisory: "Pagliacci" contains adult themes, including adultery and murder, and "Gianni Schicchi" contains mild slapstick humor.