Monday, October 12, 2020

An inside look at Pagliacci

Antonello Palombi (Canio) and Nuccia Focile (Nedda) in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 2008 © Rozarii Lynch
Seattle Opera continues its Fall Season with a recital featuring the highlights of Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Based on a real crime, this verismo opera owes its continuing success in part to the composer’s ability to balance humor, romance, and darkly violent moods.

Pagliacci means “Clowns” or “Players” in Italian—though the ending of this opera is far from amusing. "The lead tenor Canio’s ever famed aria ‘Vesti la giubba makes a point of emphasizing the juxtaposition," writes Kelly Maxwell of Opera Colorado. "‘Put on the costume,’ he bemoans, ‘the people pay and want to laugh.’ Late in the aria, to potent high notes, he declaims, ‘Ridi Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto!’: ‘Laugh, clown, though your heart is shattered.’” 

With both words and music by Leoncavallo, Pagliacci premiered in Milan on May 21, 1892, with the conductor Arturo Toscanini on the podium.

Laugh, clown, laugh...though your heart is breaking!

, the leader of a traveling theater group, plays Pagliaccio onstage.
NEDDA (SOPRANO), Canio’s wife, is having an affair with Silvio. Onstage she plays Columbine.
SILVIO (BARITONE), Nedda’s lover, wants her to leave the theater and settle down with him.
TONIO (BARITONE), another clown in the troupe, is also in love with Nedda.
BEPPE (TENOR), another clown in the troupe, plays Harlequin onstage.

Italian composer and librettist Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857–1919)

"Born in Naples, Leoncavallo is best known today for his one-act verismo masterpiece Pagliacci. After the success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo was inspired to write Pagliacci, which was a triumph on its 1892 premiere and led to stagings of his earlier works, Chatterton and I Medici. His La bohème in 1897 was overshadowed by the success of Puccini’s version the previous year. Leoncavallo’s last major success was Zazà in 1900. Pagliacci was paired with Mascagni’s Cavallaria rusticana soon after its premiere and together they are probably the most enduringly popular operas of the verismo movement." Source: The Royal Opera House; read more

In a village in southern Italy with a temporary stage in the main piazza.

The residents of a small town are excited by the arrival of a troupe of commedia dell’arte performers. Their performance promises to feature the amusing antics of Harlequin, the flirtatious wiles of Columbine, and several of the other classic clowns of Italian comedy. But despite their onstage chemistry, relationships between the actors in the troupe are increasingly strained...

Pagliacci. Photo by Thilo Beu, THEATER BONN.

Years ago Canio, the troupe’s leader, rescued Nedda from a life on the streets and taught her to perform. He has since married her and become a fiercely jealous husband. Tonio has the hots for Nedda and tries to touch her anytime Canio’s back is turned, despite the fact that she finds him disgusting. She is in love with Silvio, a handsome young man from the village.

Gordon Hawkins (Tonio), Doug Jones (Beppe), Nuccia Focile (Nedda) in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 2008. Photo by Rozarii Lynch

Rejected by Nedda, as revenge Tonio brings Canio to witness her adultery. Canio is furious—but suddenly, “Places” are called. The audience is waiting and the show must go on. During the performance, jealousy drives Canio out of his mind and turns comic play-acting into something horribly realtragic and true. He kills Nedda and Silvio, then tells the audience, “La commedia è finita!” (Show’s over.)

Because Commedia dell’arte relied heavily on improvisation, the form centered around a few key stock characters and situations. Among these stock characters the most familiar to modern audiences may be the Harlequin, an amoral, mischievous but playful and narcissistic servant character, pictured here with the female character, Columbine. Painting by Giovanni Domenico Ferretti. 

"Commedia dell’arte is a theatrical form characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colorful stock characters that emerged in northern Italy in the 15th century and rapidly gained popularity throughout Europe. The earliest known company formed in Padua in 1545, and by the turn of the 17th century troupes such as the Gelosi, Confidenti, and Fedeli enjoyed international celebrity. Performances were based on a set schema, or scenario—a basic plot, often a familiar story, upon which the actors improvised their dialogue. Thus actors were at liberty to tailor a performance to their audience, allowing for sly commentary on current politics and bawdy humor that would otherwise be censored. Most commonly, the plot centered on the struggles of young lovers, or innamorati, whose union is hindered by one or several elders (vecchi), possibly a jealous guardian or even an aged spouse." —Jennifer Meagher, The Met Museum [Read more]

"The iconic aria 'Vesti la giubba,' sung by Pagliacco, immediately following his realization that his wife Nedda has humiliated him by her affair with Silvio. His heart breaks as he has to prepare to take to the stage as a clown. The juxtaposition of his tremendous pain and plastering on a fake smile makes this aria one of the most iconic in all of opera. In fact, the first record to sell one-million copies was famed tenor Enrico Caruso’s 1902 recording of 'Vesti la giubba' from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. So, of course, his soaring tenor lines have been repurposed to be a stand-in for any and all operatic moments. The tune has been used to sell everything from Coca Cola to Rice Krispies. It has also appeared to heighten emotional climaxes of many films and television shows, most notably The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and The Untouchables. The character Pagliacci has transcended genres and became a stand-in for any type of heartbroken or murderous clown. Many popular tunes have used playing Pagliacci as a metaphor for hiding heartbreak behind a smile. Perhaps most notably Smokey Robinson’s 'Tears of a Clown' and Nancy Wilson’s 'The masquerade is over' feature references to playing Pagliacci. Many other artists have quoted the iconic lines from the opera, including Queen and Maynard Ferguson. Frank Sinatra also used an image of himself painted as a harlequin clown on the cover of his 1958 album, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely."—Kelly Maxwell, Opera Colorado [read more]

From The Simpson. Season 17, Episode 8: "The Italian Bob."

From something that really happened. Leoncavallo, the librettist/composer, grew up in a small town in southern Italy where his father was a judge. Young Leoncavallo watched his father preside at the trial of the original Canio, an actor who had murdered his actress wife onstage during a performance. As a young man Leoncavallo couldn’t get out of his mind the appearance in court of the murderer, consumed by grief over what he had done, about to receive the death sentence. So he made an opera out of it.

Cavalleria rusticana had just had its explosive premiere, pushing the art form of Italian opera in the new direction of verismo—brief, gritty stories about down-to-earth characters, with simple, easy-on-the-ear melodies sung by huge voices contending with vast Wagner-sized orchestras. Ruggero Leoncavallo was a talented young poet and composer who had spent several penniless years playing the piano in cafés in Cairo and Paris. Annoyed by the music publisher Ricordi, who bought the rights to an ambitious opera he’d written in order to PREVENT it from being produced, Leoncavallo wrote Pagliacci in imitation of Cavalleria rusticana and offered it to Sonzogno, Ricordi’s rival. Pagliacci became one of the biggest hits in the history of opera. It made Leoncavallo’s fortune; it’s estimated that over the course of his life he made more money from this one short opera than Giuseppe Verdi had from all of his operas put together. But like Mascagni, another “one-hit wonder,” Leoncavallo never repeated the success of Pagliacci.

Enrico Caruso as Canio in Pagliacci. Photo courtesy of Opera Colorado.

Seattle Opera premieres its Pagliacci Highlights Recital for Seattle Opera subscribers on Friday, Oct. 16. Experience the joys and tragedies of life in a small Italian village in this online program featuring highlights from Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Many of the artists originally scheduled to perform in the August double bill are thrilled to participate in this presentation: Gregory Kunde (Canio), Vanessa Goikoetxea (Nedda), Michael Mayes (Tonio), Will Liverman (Silvio), John Keene (Pianist). Learn more at

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