ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Pagliacci” is a true-crime thriller unfurling within the operatic essentials of lust, infidelity and murder.
Opera Southwest will perform Ruggero Leoncavallo’s classic tragedy with the help of guest conductor Zoe Zeniodi beginning Sunday, March 26. The opera stars Raul Melo as Canio the clown; Cammy Cook as Nedda, his wife; and Carlos Archuleta as Tonio. Paul Bower is Nedda’s lover, Silvio.
The Greek-born Zeniodi is the first woman to conduct for Opera Southwest in its 44 seasons.
“Pagliacci” (“Clowns”) bristles with drama, passion and the sting of revenge, she said.
“It’s the story of a woman who’s in love with a man who is not her husband.”
The libretto’s play-within-a-play seeps into real life with a murder at the end.
“Pagliacci” opens with a group of traveling circus performers. Canio the clown leads the troupe. His wife, Nedda, is in love with a villager named Silvio.
“There’s always a villain in there, and his name is Tonio,” Zeniodi said. “He really wants Nedda, so he shows to her husband what’s going on with her lover.”
The composer claimed he based “Pagliacci”on an incident from his childhood: an 1865 murder whose victim was a family servant. A series of perceived romantic entanglements over a village girl triggered the crime. Leoncavallo’s father was the presiding magistrate in the criminal investigation. The opera premiered in Milan in 1892.
Despite the viciousness of his final act, Canio is not evil, Zeniodi insisted.
“He’s really a person who really loves her and wants her and can’t control his emotions,” she said.
“I have never done an opera like this before,” she added. “The (characters) are all very alive, and the music is very lustful and romantic.”
The Dallas Opera recently elected Zeniodi to its Institute for Women Conductors. One of six accepted, she was one of 150 applicants from across the globe.
The concert pianist says she stumbled into her second career almost by accident.
“It was really by chance,” she said. “It wasn’t that I really wanted to be a conductor. It just happened to me. A person saw me conduct in a lesson and this person – my mentor – told me I should study more about conducting.”
At the time, she was working on her degree at the University of Miami. The person who discovered her was Thomas Sleeper, the university conductor.
Zeniodi said she never encountered any roadblocks in this male-dominated field because of her gender. If anything, being a woman helped.
“I think people are more curious,” she said. “I think a conductor has nothing to do with gender. The music just flows through a conductor to the orchestra.”
Zenoidi has conducted for the Florida Grand Opera, the Greek National Opera and the Palm Beach Symphony, among others. She is the artistic director and principal conductor of the Broward Symphony Orchestra.
She will make her Carnegie Hall debut on April 16 with the New England Symphonic Ensemble.