Bringing the story to our distanced reality, Silvio’s first-act duet with Nedda begins as a cell-phone conversation, and Canio has Beppe film one of his early arias on a smartphone, broadcasting a live feed to his adoring fans. The chorus is a disembodied, pre-recorded specter over speakers; Zvulun worked around their physical absence by sending a host of jugglers and other professional clowns to the stage. (The chorus parts had been recorded one at a time in isolation and stitched together to make the final product.) The director also looked to 17th-century Bunraku puppet theater to bridge the literal gap between characters.
Preparing for the first entry in the opera’s Molly Blank Big Tent Series was a difficult task, to put it mildly. In addition to months of artistic planning, cast and crew submitted to weekly COVID tests — part of a 37-page list of safety protocols. In the extended cast rehearsal period, singers had to grow accustomed to performing while wearing masks, emoting and creating connections while making sure to not get too close to one another, no matter the storyline. For a few of the arias, singers removed their masks once situated in one of four telephone-booth-like plastic enclosures.
Much as it’s unfair to nit-pick the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s pre-recorded fall concerts, judging the opera requires proper context. The company of strong, compelling singers were able to appropriately project when separated in their protective booths but when they put on masks to roam around on the stage, the microphone-assisted voices came out muffled. Aside from the chorus, the biggest unfortunate concession came in the form of Rolando Salazar’s diminished offstage orchestra, which was piped in through the speakers. Due to safety protocols, the smaller ensemble had to noticeably rely on a keyboard to fill out the orchestration.
“Pagliacci” is a traditional story told here with very untraditional staging. It was a breath of fresh air to see it live.
Atlanta Opera’s “Pagliacci”
7:30 p.m. Oct. 24, 28, 30; Nov. 1, 5, 7, 11, 13. $149-$399 for a pod of 4. Hermance Stadium at Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road NE, Brookhaven. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org.