Florida Grand Opera’s second opera of the season is Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci, The Clowns. Leoncavallo was inspired by the recent success of Pietro Mascagni’s verismo one-act opera, Cavalleria rusticana to attempt a verismo piece of his own. (Verismo, or “realism”, is a style of Italian opera that became popular in the mid-late 19th century. It focuses on the lives and struggles of common people, as opposed to previous eras’ obesssions with gods, ancient history, and the nobility).
Leoncavallo also drew inspiration from a sordid childhood episode: the murder of a family servant by a pair of brothers in a romantic rivalry over a village woman. Leoncavallo’s own father, a magistrate, presided over the case. There was some legal trouble over Leoncavallo’s plot. A French playwright named Catulle Mendés accused Leoncavallo of plagiarizing his work La femme de Tabarin, but dropped the case after a countersuits was brought by a Spanish dramatist Manuel Tamayo y Baus, claiming that Mendés’ work plagiarized one of his plays written twenty years earlier. Although Leoncavallo was working in Paris when Mendés’ play was produced, where he certainly could have been exposed to plays and operas with similar plots, he claimed ignorance of these works. (Ironically, Leoncavallo later complained that Giacomo Puccini had stolen his idea for an operatic version of La bohème)!
I pagliacci is set in the mid-19th century in a small Southern Italian village. The main characters are traveling actors, members of a troupe of commedia dell’arte players, whose own personalities and stories come to closely resemble the roles they play onstage.
Canio (a tenor role) is the leader of the troupe and married to Nedda. He is a jealous and temperamental man (Nedda describes him as a “brute”) who tolerates no confusion of his wife’s flirtatious, unfaithful onstage character with her real life behavior. Canio’s notable aria is the famous “Vesti la giubba,” during which he prepares for his role as a clown while mourning heartbreak. His commedia character is Pagliaccio, Clown, the comedic cuckolded husband who catches his wife with her lover.
Nedda (soprano) is his young wife. Canio claims to have rescued her from homelessness and starvation, taught her to act, and given her a profession, home, and family. But Nedda is restless, and more than a little afraid of Canio. For her, theirs is a marriage of convenience, and she hates life on the road. She is having an affair with a young villager and is terrified that her husband will find out. As she watches carefree birds swoop through the sky, Nedda envies their freedom in her aria “Stridono lassú.” On stage, she plays the classic commedia character Colombina, a beautiful young woman who cheats on her doddering clown of a husband with the trickster Arlecchino.
Tonio (baritone) kicks off the opera by breaking the 4th wall and addressing the audience directly in the famous Prologue, “Si può?” Dressed as his commedia character, Taddeo the fool, he speaks of the sincerity of the author’s story, despite its colorful commedia setting. Tonio is a deformed actor who harbors a secret love for Nedda. In Canio’s absence, he makes advances on her and when she rejects him, tries to assault her. She manages to drive him away. Enraged and humiliated, Tonio swears revenge.
Silvio (baritone) is the young villager with whom Nedda is having an affair. Immediately after Tonio’s assault, he approaches her, and in a passionate duet, begs her to run away with him. As she finally agrees and they embrace, Tonio quietly brings Canio back to observe their tryst, but Silvio escapes before the furious husband can see his face.
Beppe (tenor) is the actor who plays Arlecchino, Colombina’s lover. He stops Canio from killing Nedda as he vehemently demands the name of her lover, and sends everyone off to prepare for the evening’s performance, hoping that a little time will cool tempers. During the play, he sings a light-hearted serenade, “Ah, Colombina!”
Now the stage is — quite literally — set for the drama of the evening. It is nothing less than a comedic, theatrical version of the actors’ lives as they have just unfolded. Colombina takes advantage of her husband Pagliaccio’s absence to invite her lover Arlecchino to dinner. She is importuned by her silly servant Taddeo, who has chosen this inconvenient moment to proclaim his love for her. She sends him packing, and she and Arlecchino plot to give Pagliaccio a sleeping potion and run away together. Pagliaccio arrives in a fury, having realized that Colombina has been cheating. However, Canio (as Pagliaccio) is too angry to stick to the script, especially since it so closely mirrors what he has just experienced. He breaks character, egged on by Tonio, and demands to know the name of Nedda’s lover. Meanwhile, the audience is somewhat confused, but since Nedda remains in character and tries to keep the play on track, they ultimately believe that Canio’s ranting is part of the action. Canio, however, is now maddened with rage. As Nedda defiantly promises that she will take her lover’s name to the grave, Canio leaps on her and stabs her. Dying, she calls on Silvio for help. As he rushes to her aid, Canio intercepts him and stabs him too.
The famous final line of I pagliacci is spoken, not sung, and it is sometimes given to Canio, and other times to Tonio. Naturally, this dramatic finale has a different flavor when it is spoken by the now exhausted and heartbroken murderer, or the vengeful Tonio who set the events in motion. Who will the honor go to in Florida Grand Opera’s production? It wouldn’t be sporting to say! However, we can share one more instance of life imitating art and vice versa in this gritty and glorious work.
Stage director Jeffery Marc Buchman (Tosca, A Streetcar Named Desire) has done his research. “Much like the verismo style of opera to which Pagliacci belongs, Neapolitan songs are built on themes of the celebration of love and the pain of betrayal that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, resonated with the people of small, rural Italian villages like ours in Pagliacci,” he says. Inspired by Naples’ famous and popular song legacy as well as Leoncavallo’s Neopolitan roots, Buchman is incorporating some of these works into the opera. It’s more than a director’s whim — it’s quite authentic. Vocal and instrumental music and dance were an important part of commedia dell’arte performances, and period illustrations of the characters frequently show them dancing and singing.
As a verismo opera with a play-within-a-play plot, I pagliacci is a prime example of art imitating life imitating art, promising a colorful slice of life filled with thrilling music and storytelling. The opera runs January 27 – February 10. Tickets available at www.fgo.org.