The circus is coming to town!
The Italian theatrical tradition of commedia dell’arte (literally, “comedy of the art,” art meaning profession or craft) has been around since the 1500s. Acting troupes traveled circuits throughout the nation, including rural villages where they were welcomed with great enthusiasm. A traveling show was a special treat in the days when most entertainment was homemade. The American equivalent would be the old-fashioned travellng circus coming to town, with a big parade of animals and equipment from the train station to the field where they would be setting up. Even the setup was part of the show! Traditionally, in productions of I pagliacci, Canio bangs on a large bass drum to announce his troupe’s arrival and drum up excitement for the evening’s entertainment.
Commedia dell’arte is not circus, but the excitement and festive atmosphere it provoked was the same; and the stock characters of commedia dell’arte, with their colorful costumes and masks or makeup, bear a similarity to clowns. In fact, I pagliacci translates as “The Clowns” and features some of the most famous commedia characters, each of whom correspond to the actor playing them: Colombina, the unfaithful wife (played by the unfaithful wife Nedda) and her lover Arlecchino or Harlequin (played by troupe member Beppe). Canio, the head of the troupe and Nedda’s jealous husband, plays the Pagliaccio, or clown, whose standard storyline includes being cheated on by his wife. Tonio, the deformed actor secretly in love with Nedda, plays a character similar to Pulcinella, a hunchbacked character who womanizes and schemes.
The stock characters were associated with specific masks, costumes, and looks — think of classic cartoon characters, like Bugs Bunny. Bugs always wears white gloves and is often seen munching on a carrot as if it is a cigar. He gets up to all kinds of shenanigans, but is primarily a trickster who delights in tormenting his nemesis, Elmer Fudd, a hunter always seen in olive green hunting gear, boots, and a cap, with his shotgun. When modern audiences see Bugs and Elmer, they may not know exactly what the storyline will be, but they know that Bugs will trick and humiliate Elmer, and ultimately come out on top, no matter what.
19th century Italian audiences would have expected the same of commedia dell’arte shows. The characters always looked and acted more or less the same, but the shows themselves were improvised on the spot. This fact plays into the plot of I pagliacci quite significantly — but more on that in a future post!
The days of relying strictly on homemade entertainment are long past, but even with thousands of entertainment options at our fingertips, a trip to the opera still stands out as an unforgettable experience. From the fun of dressing to the nines (or coming comfortably as you are) to the colorful costumes, set, and props; to the stunning beauty of glorious, unamplified voices filling the hall with some of the world’s most beautiful music and dramatic storytelling, there is nothing else in the world quite like the opera.
With I pagliacci, the circus is coming to town, and nobody wants to miss the circus. Get your tickets today at fgo.org.