review

REVIEW: C.R. Opera Theatre at its finest with Italian pairing

Former NFL defensive end leads the charge with 2 starring roles

Rob Merritt/Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre

Canio (tenor Ta'u Pupu'a, left) is caught up in rage over the suspected infidelities of his wife, Nedda (soprano Suzanne Vinnik), in “Pagliacci,” one of two short Italian operas that opened Friday night at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre productions will be repeated Sunday afternoon.
Rob Merritt/Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre Canio (tenor Ta'u Pupu'a, left) is caught up in rage over the suspected infidelities of his wife, Nedda (soprano Suzanne Vinnik), in “Pagliacci,” one of two short Italian operas that opened Friday night at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids. The Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre productions will be repeated Sunday afternoon.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Bravo to the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre for staging one of the most satisfying, entertaining, lively productions in its nearly 20-year history. Make that two of the most engaging productions.

The Paramount Theatre was filled with gorgeous music from the stage and raucous cheers from the audience Friday night for two short Italian operas often performed in tandem: “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” They will be repeated at 2 p.m. Sunday (1/15).

They pair logically and naturally, easily using the same rural Italian setting and scenery. And while both are filled with passion turned poison, they also are vibrant and alive under the deft stage direction of internationally renowned director Candace Evans, trained in opera, ballet and classical theater.

She has taken a cast of marvelous musicians and turned them into fine comedic and dramatic actors, breaking away from a presentational style and infusing them with equal parts playfulness and pathos surrounding the two tales of lust, betrayal and revenge.

So much talent is packed onto the stage, with several of the principals having Eastern Iowa roots: Cedar Rapids native Janara Kellerman, Sigourney native Katharine Goeldner, Quasqueton native Chris Carr and University of Northern Iowa graduate Teresa Buchholz. They were joined by a huge cast of veteran professionals, young artists embarking on their professional careers and local children and adults adding their soaring sounds to the crowd scenes.

Leading the charge is Ta’u Pupu’a of New York City, by way of Tonga, Utah and the Cleveland Browns. The former NFL defensive end from the mid-1990s is just as big a star on the stage as he was on the football field, before an injury forced him to seek another career path. His booming, resonant tenor voice is as commanding as his 6-foot-5-inch frame, when he embodies the doomed lover in the first opera and the betrayed husband who exacts revenge in the other.

The crushing weight of his grief pours through his instantly recognizable aria in “Pagliacci,” after he discovers that the dalliance his wife portrays onstage with their traveling troupe of actors is no act. She has betrayed him in real life, too. Suzanne Vinnik is ravishing as his unfaithful wife, her fiery soprano every inch his artistic match.

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Mezzo-soprano Goeldner, who plays his jilted lover in “Cavalleria rusticana,” also commands the stage, singing through her heartbreak and shame. Buchholz toys with them both as the woman who married someone else while her betrothed was off to war, then woos her former lover back to her bed.

Baritone Christopher Clayton joins Pupu’a in playing double-duty, as the revenge-crazed husband in “Cavalleria rusticana,” then as the vengeful, lecherous figure who sets the murderous wheels in motion in “Pagliacci.”

Propelling all this scheming are members of Orchestra Iowa, under the masterful baton of Daniel Kleinknecht, the opera theater’s founder. It’s their finest moment as well, as they finesse this explosive musical journey.

Both productions are just as beautiful for the eyes as for the ears. Rob Sunderman’s set massive set design whisks viewers to rural Italy, with a huge stone church looming high above one side of the town square, and rustic living quarters with balconies spanning the back and opposite side. The structures afford the chorus and principals plenty of multilevel acting spaces — with plenty of room left for folk dancing in the square.

Lighting and projections by Scott Olinger and Kristin Geisler help place the first show in springtime and the other in fall, with beautiful backdrop projections changing from stained glass windows to rolling hills. And Janie Westendorf’s costumes and Sarah Fried’s makeup and wig designs bring so much visual power to the stage picture, making both shows a sight to behold.


IF YOU GO

- What: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre presents “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci”

- Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

- When: 2 p.m. Sunday (1/15)

- Tickets: $19 to $69, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com/Events

- Details: Cr-opera.org/Content/Season/CAVALLERIA-RUSTICANA-PAGLIACCI-Details.aspx

- Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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