Zeffirelli opera on TV

Paradoxically, the Franco Zeffirelli production of Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (PBS, Friday, check local listings for premiere and repeats) is at once a fine piece of opera-on-film and a scalding indictment of what is wrong with opera today.

Visually, Zeffirelli's work is detailed and effective. The basic set used at La Scala (which pushes the action ahead to the 1940s) is treated as a sound stage. The singers mouth to a recorded sound track.

There is a vitality to the images presented, and one could actually have become quite absorbed in the action if only the casting had been more shrewd (and the lip-syncing better).

Placido Domingo, made up to look rather avuncular, plays Canio too jovially and genially to be convincing as a volcano of murderous passions and is not in top form vocally. Teresa Stratas is in so precarious vocal shape as to undercut a Nedda that has become surprisingly mechanical over the years. Juan Pons makes no impression at all in the catalytic role of Tonio; Alberto Rinaldi sings Silvio without much ardor or tonal allure. Georges Pretre incites the La Scala forces to great outbursts of emotion and drama, but along the way, some arbitrary musical decisions undercut the effectiveness of his overall reading.

The update neither adds nor detracts, but Zeffirelli's ability to bring all the characters to life is consistently remarkable in theory, even if in actuality his cast consistently lets him down.

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