In all of opera, arguably the best-known aria of all is “Vesti la giubba,” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Between Caruso, Pavarotti and Crazy Joe Davola on Seinfeld, generations have wept along with Canio, the tragic clown, as he discovers the infidelity of his wife Nedda, just before he is to take the stage.
Roughly translated, “Vesti la giubba” means “Put on the costume.”
Tenor Chris Romeo, a St. Petersburg native who’s been singing with St. Petersburg Opera Company for 10 years, will perform his first “starring” role June 13, 15, 18 and 20 when Pagliacci – the complete opera – is presented at the Palladium Theater.
Romeo, a familiar figure to SPO regulars in many of the pandemic-safe “popera” concerts of recent months, as well as special shows such as Holiday Sparkle and Pinocchio, has become a standout vocalist.
In fact, it was his take on “Vesti la giubba” that led, more or less directly, to SPO artistic director Mark Sforzini to assign him the role of Canio in Pagliacci.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, Maestro was taking a chance and seeing if that song could fit my voice,” Romeo explains. “And he worked me so hard, really showed me the ropes, explaining what needs to happen. We worked so much on it that now that song feels like a piece of cake to me.”
Comments Sforzini: “I was so impressed by his approach to the verismo opera style singing that it really was a part of thinking about maybe doing Pagliacci. It’s Chris’ chance to do a big role, and one that suits him really well.”
Romeo says the year spent fine-tuning this classic piece of music – and the heartbreak that it represents – has served him well. “I think the joy of knowing it so well is now I can just be purely emotional with it, and not have to think about all the little details of the music and things like that,” he explains.
The SPO production of Pagliacci is SPO’s first full, staged opera since Rigoletto in the early months of 2020. “Set, costumes, wigs, makeup, fully staged,” says Sforzini proudly. “It’s the whole kit and kaboodle. We’re back.”
The company began its slow comeback in the fall, with the series of outdoor pop-up performances, eventually moving indoors for a show here, a show there. They returned to the Palladium last month with a variety program called The Return of Grand Opera.
“It’s not like we’ve been sitting around, twiddling our thumbs, not knowing what to do,” Sforzini explains. “We’ve been doing creative shows every month. We haven’t done it quite to the extent of fully-staged productions, but we’ve been doing 85, 90-minute shows.
“It just feels like we’ve been working back to this. And this is just like the final step.”
Including Romeo’s Canio, there are five lead characters in Pagliacci, plus an eight-member chorus. Sforzini will conduct a 22-member orchestra. There will be no intermission.
The 2021-22 season, to be announced soon, will bring SPO back to pre-pandemic levels – three mainstage operas at the Palladium, the annual children’s opera, special shows – and more “poperas,” which provided wildly successful.
Chris Romeo, no doubt, will be in there somewhere. And quite likely very visible.
“I feel like being given the opportunity, through St. Pete Opera, has allowed me to step up and keep practicing, and keep at it,” he stresses. “And I am very grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been given.”
Details and tickets here.