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I took some flak from opera-loving friends last spring for my critical hand-wringing over Washington Opera’s 1997-98 season, which had just been announced. I wrote in these pages that Plácido Domingo’s brave new world of programming was sounding more tired than the old one and that that most ubiquitous of double-bill second halves, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, seemed short shrift as an evening’s entertainment and an uninspired choice for a Domingo vehicle.

So my friends started their own hand-wringing. They like the standard repertoire, thank you very much, and enjoy nothing better than a brace of good tunes and some pretty costumes at the end of the workweek. They also can’t understand why I’d complain about hearing Domingo in a greatest-hits opera like Pagliacci after witnessing That Thing With Feathers last year. Besides, they say, that Zeffirelli guy is directing and designing the production, and he always puts on a good show.

Well, it’s pretty hard to refute that last argument: Franco Zeffirelli is nothing if not a showman. With David Belasco’s obsessive eye for detail and P.T. Barnum’s manic, more-is-more aesthetic, Zeffirelli has sent those pesky composers and librettists packing and re-envisioned opera as a fairground where the prop designer, the supernumerary, and the animal wrangler are the stars. In his recent Met productions, what you remember most vividly is how he wedged the entire city of Paris onstage in La Bohème, how loud those wooden slats were in Turandot with hundreds of choristers trampling endlessly over them, how Carmen is really an opera about livestock—and, on lucky nights, how some superstar with an adequately outsize personality would put on enough of a sideshow to divert your eye from the technicolor mayhem.

I should admit right here that, in the right frame of mind, I’m a sucker for this kind of spectacle. I mean, if you’ve got an opera house with a city block of stage space, why the hell not fill it up? The problem is, such stagings are not about the opera, the human story unfolding onstage. They’re more like 19th-century virtual reality with a great score. As long as you’re there for the arcade experience—and not to be moved or enlightened—the effect can be thrilling.

Funny thing is, Zeffirelli started out as a Visconti protégé at La Scala, creating productions respected as much for their naturalistic acting as for their understated visual elegance. Zeffirelli’s parallel careers as a director/designer in theater (everything from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams) and film (the Bard again, sparklingly done, and some sumptuous Verdi) helped ground his work in touching and believable human behavior.

Those acting smarts informed the much sparer Pagliacci he did for the Met in the ’60s (coupled more generously with its usual stage partner Cavalleria Rusticana) and were still in evidence in the more intimate scenes in that gargantuan Met Bohème. But increasingly, Zeffirelli the megalomaniacal designer has steamrolled Zeffirelli the sensible director. His staging of principal singers has become increasingly perfunctory, and just finding them onstage has become a game of Where’s Waldo. And so it is with his WashOp Pagliacci.

The opera is your basic clown-marries-girl, clown-loses-girl, clown stabs-girl-to-death story. Set during an itinerant circus troupe’s one-night stand in an Italian village, the triangulations of lust and revenge among the crookback, the chief, his wife, and her lover come to a head in the play-within-a-play finale. In its broadest outlines, Pagliacci’s story of jealousy-induced wife-killing resembles Verdi’s Otello. Of course, if Otello is the veal piccata at a five-star Milanese restaurant, Pagliacci is a mortadella and provolone sub at an Italian football wedding—but no less tasty for all the grease and cheese.

There’s plenty of grease and cheese to lick your chops over in the current WashOp staging (previously seen in Rome and L.A.), and, as expected from this director, it’s at the expense of the main action. So when Canio, the troupe’s star performer, makes public threats against his wife Nedda’s infidelities, we can enjoy a construction crew directly behind him noisily building a stage for the evening’s show. Nedda’s aria of longing to escape her oppressive life, “Stridono lassu,” barely distracts from the local tough fondling a hooker’s leather-clad butt nearby. Later, when the deformed clown Tonio sings of his own longings for Nedda, she gets a chance to do a little upstaging, bathing an adorable toddler smack in front of him. And on and on it goes.

Sometimes the local color makes dramatic sense, as when a wedding party processes by the unhappy circus couple and moments later we catch sight of yet another couple bickering in their hot tenement. More often, it’s busyness as usual. The parade of fire-eaters that, according to Zeffirelli, travels with this tiny, impoverished band of players illuminates the action only in the literal sense. And to have people milling around even during Canio’s pivotal “Vesti la giubba” (“No More Rice Krispies” to the layman familiar with the old commercial) is truly shameless—though not nearly as shameless as the Vegas light show punctuating the climactic murders. (The production is to be taped for telecast, and home viewers should have a very different experience of it if the camerawork is even adequately selective.)

If Zeffirelli has fashioned a masterpiece of irrelevant detail, at least he’s checked his numbing literalism at the door and updated the action to present-day Italy. His set is a delirious urban nightmare, its run-down apartment complex butting up against a highway overhead and a sunless slab of pavement out front. The atmosphere’s pretty evocative, and, if the concept and the opera part company from time to time, the sheer vastness of it all generates a good number of frissons. One miscalculation is the commedia dell’arte performance the clowns put on: It’s not very funny, the shtick is old as the hills (though not in the classic-comedy sense), and given all the TV sets visible in the onstage apartments, it not the kind of show a sitcom-jaded crowd would laugh at as much as this one does.

That crowd, you can imagine, is quite a presence, lit with welcome subtlety by Joan Sullivan and costumed by Raimonda Gaetani in everything under the sun. What was most remarkable on opening night was the sharp coordination between these teeming masses and the conductor’s baton. Chances are, such precision had something to do with the guy behind the baton, Leonard Slatkin.

It’s not often we hear the NSO music director in the Opera House pit, but considering the robust choral work and the elasticity and singing tone in the string section, we really need him there more often.

He had a kick-ass cast to shake his stick at. Gregory Yurisich actually made us side with Tonio—yes-man, would-be rapist, poor man’s Iago—against Nedda’s stinging insults and let us see his revenge as justly motivated.

His “Prologue” was a fine piece of singing, dark and sinewy of tone, imbued with compassion and tragic weight. Verónica Villarroel, too, was eloquent in her portrayal of Nedda, the mournful shading and pearly high notes familiar from Luisa Miller and Il Guarany now only slightly tarnished by some explosive attacks and a widening vibrato. There was a wonderfully lyrical Beppe in David Cangelosi, and though Manuel Lanza lurched around like some radio-controlled G.I. Joe, he had all the knockout baritone virility to make Nedda’s nice-guy lover Silvio the better prospect we have to believe him to be.

Ultimately, though, most eyes attempted to be on Domingo. He didn’t disappoint as Canio. In fact, at a few years short of his 60th birthday, he’s little short of miraculous. Beyond his intelligent musicality, his detailed response to character, his energy, and his elegant stage presence, there’s that voice. Mediterranean warmth still suffuses it. The high notes still gleam. He can still ring the rafters or pull the sound back to an ardent whisper. It’s not hard to understand the cult surrounding this Energizer Bunny among tenors, or the rapidity with which Washington appeared on the opera map after his appointment.

So yes, in response to all the raised eyebrows, it was a privilege hearing Domingo in this warhorse for all of his, oh, 25 minutes of stage time. And if I weren’t aware of the other operas he’s been singing of late, for companies that are not his artistic home, I would probably shut my yap. But his roster of active repertoire—Idomeneo, Stiffelio, La Fanciulla del West, Lohengrin, Die Walküre, Parsifal, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Les Troyens, to mention a fraction—makes the heart sink, not only for the thrilling roles he’s not sharing with us, but for repertoire scandalously absent from a so-called world-class company.

And no, there’s nothing wrong with the standard rep (or, for that matter, conservative new works like next spring’s Dangerous Liaisons). Operas like Pagliacci are popular for good reason and are always worth revisiting. Anyway, no one expects WashOp to be the experimental, even visionary, company it was in the ’60s and ’70s, when the Met was still shlepping Top 10 operas through town every year. But we haven’t seen a season as blithely unchallenging as the present one since the mid-’80s, and it’s a far cry indeed from the season just three years ago that brought us the likes of Tiefland, Semele, and Vanessa. Maybe it’s worth remembering, now that WashOp has become D.C.’s answer to the Met, that that venerable old house isn’t the only paradigm anymore. Three blissful productions at New York City Opera last month—Macbeth, L’Italiana in Algeri, and Iphigénie en Tauride, all staged with reinventive daring and wit—only whet the appetite for that troupe’s upcoming late-20th-century fare Paul Bunyan, Emmeline, and Tan Dun’s groundbreaking Marco Polo.

With the buzz Domingo has created, and with nearly 100 percent of WashOp’s seats sold through subscription, the Primo Tenore should realize he’s in a position to have his cake and sing about it, too. While Zeffirelli is trying to fit the whole world onto one opera stage, perhaps Domingo could spend a few of his off nights at City Opera (or Houston Grand or BAM or Skylight Opera Theatre) and remind himself just how wide the world of opera really is.CP