What if Pagliacci had been about a rodeo clown?
That sort of mental picture emerged while the audience enjoyed Caruso in Cowtown, a Fort Worth Opera fundraiser that paid tribute to a 1920 Fort Worth performance by the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso in 1920.
The event took place in the same venue that Caruso played (now called Cowtown Coliseum, then known simply as the Coliseum) and featured tenor Stephen Costello performing some of the same arias that were presented to a packed house there on an October night in 1920.
You didn’t misread that: The world’s greatest tenor did indeed come to town and perform in a rodeo arena. And Thursday’s re-creation of the event made you understand why Caruso, who was reportedly reluctant to sing in such an ignoble venue, was eventually won over by the surprisingly good acoustics of a Stockyards building that is much better known for being the first home of the Fort Worth Stock Show and, today, weekend rodeo performances than it is for being a concert venue (although Elvis did play there in 1956).
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Costello, accompanied by pianist Stephen Carey, offered a pleasing 45-minute set of arias, as patrons dined at tables set up on the dirt floor of the coliseum. In addition to that audience, whose members paid a premium price in support of the event, patrons with much less expensive tickets (no meal or after party included) were seated in the seats where they might be watching calf roping on another night.
The numbers performed included arias by Gounod and Rossini. But perhaps the most revealing were Che gelida manina from Puccini’s La Boheme, and Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Those arias (and especially the latter one) suggest that Caruso, like any major vocal star today, felt obligated to perform his greatest hits, which took place fewer than 100 days before the final performance of the great tenor’s career.
Costello, who took the stage in cowboy hat and boots, was chosen for this event because of his long affiliation with Fort Worth Opera. He has sung with some of the great opera companies, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Milan’s La Scala, but Fort Worth Opera General Director Darren Woods pointed out that Costello made his professional debut here, 10 years ago.
Whether Costello sounded like Caruso is not a question that needs to be considered in evaluating this performance, primarily because nobody sounds like Caruso. Costello does, however, have the same sort of robust voice that characterized his subject, and he spilled out the same sort of amber-hued notes with confidence and passion. Performing without amplification, he was especially strong in works in English by composer Paolo Tosti. And, in his encores where Caruso and history were set aside, he impressed with Younger than Springtime from South Pacific, and an a cappella performance of Danny Boy to close his set.
On the whole, the event, which also benefited the Friends of Cowtown Coliseum, was just a pretty good evening of music (the program was brief and was accompanied by scurrying servers, tinkling glasses and clanking plates). But it was a great celebration of the mixing of cowboys and culture that makes our home so special.
It reminded us that we are a community that wholeheartedly embraces the delicacies of the fine arts while keeping our boots firmly planted in the rough-and-ready past that made this city, and all that it does, possible.