For aging baby boomers like myself, the tune sticks like glue to our brains, and nothing we do can peel it away.
One of opera’s most famous arias – Vesti la giubba from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci – will forever be linked to the Kellogg’s Rice Krispies television commercial from the late 1960s, just as so many Rossini overtures wear invisible Bugs Bunny cartoon hats in live concerts.
Many of you remember that old commercial – a family is enjoying breakfast until the father pours from an empty box of cereal, turns despondent and breaks into this gut-wrenching aria, lamenting “No more Rice Krispies! We ran out of Rice Krispies! My tears will not stop … ’’ It went on to become one of television’s most popular ads, and may have unwittingly turned millions of viewers into soundbite opera buffs.
So, it might be hard to get the cereal out of our heads when the St. Petersburg Opera presents a new production of I Pagliacci (The Clowns), Sunday through June 20 at the Palladium Theater. Fully staged performances include a 23-piece orchestra under the direction of artistic director Mark Sforzini.
Even if you’ve never been to an opera, chances are you know Pagliacci’s most feted moment, says Chris Green, St. Petersburg Opera’s special projects manager.
“Everyone has either heard Vesti la giubba somewhere, or knows the clown in popular culture,’’ he says. “It’s famous.’’
Normally, the short Pagliacci shares the bill with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (think the intermezzo from the movie Raging Bull), which together are known as “Cav-Pag.’’ But the company will present just one of the twins in its 80-minute production.
“We didn’t pair the two because it would mean an intermission and a traffic jam in the lobby, and we want people to get in and out safely’’ Green says of the COVID restrictions. “We hope to be returning to full capacity in the fall. But I think this will still give people a taste of opera that they’ve been missing.’’
Pagliacci is an example of verismo (realism), a term to describe operas with natural if harsh sentimentalities, lower-class characters and intense emotions. Although Pagliacci involves the fantasy of a play within a play – a commedia dell’arte – jealousy and perfidy lend a real-life punch at the end.
“Pagliacci is the epitome of verismo opera,’’ Sforzini says. “It’s real, gritty, and deals with people having issues and love affairs and murders, so it’s action packed. It’s good stuff and a very accessible first opera for people’’ new to the form.
It also complements the wide range of offerings at the Palladium, a reason why the small opera company gets carte blanche treatment, explains Paul Wilborn, the theater’s executive director.
“It’s such a thrill to be the performance home of the St. Petersburg Opera,’’ he says. “I’ve been able to watch the organization grow and thrive over the past decade or more. While we host dozens of other arts and community organizations, St. Petersburg Opera is at the heart of what we do here. We literally build our season around its show dates.”
When the curtain goes up on each of the four performances beginning this weekend, all ears will be bent on the much-parodied aria, which translates as, “Put on your costume.’’ Here, the clown Canio grieves over the infidelity of his wife, Nedda, whom he murders in a rage. The tune – first heard as a horn solo in the opening prologue – represents human frailty and how we often suffer behind a face made to look happy. Only when Canio looks at himself in the mirror does he realize his vulnerability, if not the tragedy of life itself.
The challenge for us baby boomers in the audience will be to feel all this pathos and not think about breakfast.
. . .
Performances are 2 pm Sunday, 8 pm Tuesday and Friday,
and 2 pm June 20 at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.
Face masks are required. For information call 727-823-2040
or visit stpeteopera.org/pagliacci-2021.