Features

Suffering the Truth

As the Met prepares to open brand-new productions of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, PHILIP KENNICOTT shares his personal connection with two verismo classics.

When one is young, particularly during adolescence, suffering often seems beautiful. Melancholy is an indulgence.
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Gemma Bellincioni and Roberto Stagno, stars of the first Cavalleria in 1890
© akg-images/De Agostini Picture Lib./A. Dagli Orti 2015
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Jon Vickers and Catherine Malfitano in Pagliacci in Paris, 1982
© Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet/The Image Works 2015

It was in the fifth or sixth grade, in the class of a teacher I remember for only two things: he was portly, and his pants were too bright. Everything else is a blur, except for one afternoon when he decided his pupils needed to know something about musical theater, so he brought a stack of records to class and proceeded to play his favorite bits. Among them were snatches of Hello, Dolly!, The Music Man and Mame, and — for reasons I can’t quite figure out — Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci

This was before our current age of teaching to the test and testing all the time. Students weren’t harnessed to the Common Core standards, and if a teacher wanted to take a long detour into art or music or even a political rant, no one much protested. We lost a whole afternoon that day, as records were pulled from their sleeves and spun on the turntable, then added to a growing and disheveled pile upon his desk. My classmates tittered and yawned and passed notes. I watched my teacher’s face with fascination, as he forgot himself entirely — his customary sadness, his slightly frantic gestures, his dignity. When Nedda dreamed of the freedom and faraway life of birds in “Stridono lassù,” and Canio wailed his furious laughing cries of “Ridi, Pagliacco,” or Santuzza bemoaned lost love and jealousy in “Voi lo sapete,” he seemed a ghost, his eyes focused somewhere far beyond the cinderblock walls of the classroom, his right arm held out stationary in the air, palm flat, as if he sustained the music by gently laying his hand upon its fragile emanation. 

Few things are more terrifying for a child than to witness genuine unguarded emotion in an adult, especially an adult authority figure. I had plenty of adults with whom I shared music — teachers, parents, older siblings. Music moved them, to be sure: they would tap their feet, or lapse into the polite bourgeois rapture of the concert hall. But as I look back on my introduction to music, and opera, I can’t think of any other time when I was as keenly aware of the emotional impact of music on an older person. My teacher on that long-ago afternoon was possessed, and vulnerable. And it was Cav/Pag that did it.

That was thirty-five years ago, and perhaps at that time the beloved dyad of one-act operas was still close enough to its roots in the frantic world of commercial opera at the end of the nineteenth century to keep company with classic American musicals. My taste for musicals didn’t survive adolescence, but my love of these two works remains undiminished. Most critics will acknowledge (if only among themselves) a general sense of fatigue with the most popular works in the canon. But I can listen to Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci repeatedly and with renewed engagement every time. In part, it’s because both operas strive so hard to keep one’s attention that they seem almost presciently designed for our age of distracted listening. But it’s more than that: these foundational works of verismodisplay emotion in ways that remain shocking, particularly to adults who have lived long enough to have neatly compartmentalized emotional lives, tidy, contained and decorously circumscribed. 

Listening to both operas again, and wondering again about their visceral power, I can’t exorcise my child’s sense of horror at a teacher shedding tears in front of his students. All opera, and theater too, makes voyeurs of us, allowing us to spy on the emotions of the characters. But the best verismo adds something new to the age-old voyeurism. We not only witness emotion; we witness shame. The characters in both operas suffer the same torments of jealousy and desire as any figure in Verdi or Handel or Monteverdi. But there’s always an admixture of something else, some particular self-loathing or regret, some sense of the ridiculous or absurd, that makes their anguish even more haunting than the more stylized emotions of earlier works. At least a generation before the abasement and derangement of the characters that populate Alban Berg’s operas, Santuzza, Turiddu, Canio, Nedda and Tonio invite us to watch them self-destruct — not with dignity or style, but convulsively. Verdi’s Otello, which haunts Pagliacci in particular, was only a few years old when Mascagni and Leoncavallo composed their respective masterpieces, but it is from a different world, psychologically. No one in these two operas has a tragic flaw in the sense of Otello’s jealousy; they are simply human, painfully aware of their weaknesses and dreadfully self-conscious about how they appear, behave and present themselves to the world. 

In Cavalleria, this new psychology presents itself through speed, through a brilliant musical quickening of pace that Mascagni deploys again and again to suggest the physical force of emotion. The score is riddled with markings — affrettando, animando assai, molto animato — that suggest hastiness and impatience, and much of Mascagni’s genius is how he sustains this seemingly relentless sense of rushing forward without the score’s becoming frantic. The village setting, the hints of the pastoral, the brilliant use of the orchestra as a kind of Greek chorus and pressure valve, enable the composer to rein in his pulse and tempo, so that it can surprise us yet again with a new turn to the peremptory. But this dynamic also mirrors the way we feel the worst, most corrosive and obsessive emotions — the way they seem to infect every moment of calm, infiltrate our rational defenses and subvert our most carefully constructed spiritual bulwarks.

What Mascagni captured instinctively in his musical language, Leoncavallo portrays more self-consciously in the dramatic form and framing of the work. There is nothing particularly radical about a prologue before a drama, but the prologue to Pagliacci is deeply unsettling. Tonio, as the prologue speaker, not only assures the audience that everything that follows is true — “a slice of life” — but connects the emotions that follow to “deeply embedded memories” of the composer and librettist. (Leoncavallo played both roles, though he likely cribbed much of his text from other sources.) This isn’t just a drama within a drama, with real life seeming to bleed into the conventional formula of street theater; rather, it is a tragedy prefigured from the beginning, an almost mechanical playing out of predetermined emotions, alliances, antagonisms and infatuations. 

In both operas, the one-act form forced upon the composers a psychological concision with powerful consequences. There is no room for exposition, extraneous matter, indulgent interludes or reflections. Even the choral passages have been stripped of their decorative and scene-setting function; the chorus exists to limn the social world, the social world sets the rules for the engagement, and the engagement of the characters always feels a bit like a car crash, inexorable and relentless. The trap is set from the beginning, whether it’s the “rustic chivalry” that demands Turiddu’s blood, or the “deeply embedded memories” that seem to wound each of the protagonists in Pagliacci.

What’s astonishing, in both operas, is how much self-awareness thrives within the social claustrophobia of these brutal social milieus. “Io son dannata,” says Santuzza: “I am damned.” Turiddu knows he is in the wrong, knows he will be killed, is even aware of the effects of wine on his brain. “I know well that I am warped and crooked,” says Tonio, singing not just of his body but of his character. Canio knows his own temper well enough to warn the crowd not to play games, not to fool with his pride and his wrath. None of these characters is as deeply malignant as Iago; but all of them are as keenly self-conscious of their flaws.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, is how much they all detest each other. “You fill me with disgust and loathing,” Nedda says to Tonio. Again, one can think of precedents — Rigoletto — for a clown who is also a figure of contempt. But the animosities of earlier dramas have here become almost physical, more like an allergy than hatred. In Verdi, people are subject to powerful emotions; in verismo, it’s more like toxins in the environment. There is no imaginary better place beyond these worlds, where the characters might live more decently and more happily. Fellini once said that his Strada had “no precedent,” but he was wrong. It was all there more than a half-century earlier, in Cav and Pag.

When one is young, particularly during adolescence, suffering often seems beautiful. Melancholy is an indulgence. One slips into it willingly and wallows in its warmth; sadness, carefully managed, is a kind of escape from the dullness of life. For better and worse, most of us lose this almost sensual connection to melancholy over time. Music remains one of the last vestiges of its power, one of the last connections to a time when emotions functioned more like a portal to worlds beyond than a distraction or disturbance of the regulated life. Early critics of the emerging verismo movement sensed its radical innovation in the presentation of emotion, framing its appearance as an irruption of youthful ardor within the enervated world of European opera: “It was like a door that suddenly blew open onto a sealed room,” wrote critic Guido Pannain. “A fresh, cool wind from the country blew away the faint smell of mildew that was beginning to spread….” 

We often, and I think all too easily, say that opera is about emotions, about connecting with the deepest passions that beset us in the world. But I don’t really think this is true on most evenings. Many of the most beloved operas keep passion safely at bay, sealed up in music, stylized and ritualized. We escape into the music but run little risk of being unhinged by the drama. We admire the ability of singers to create a facsimile, a mannered image of being out of control. The thought of actual catharsis is terrifying. We want to get close but never fall in. Both Mascagni and Leoncavallo used every contrivance they could devise to rattle us and break down the resistance that forms in us individually over the years, and perhaps collectively over decades. 

To this day, I find Pagliacci creepy — and addictive. I’ve often wondered why almost every recording I own of Pagliacci has a tenor in clown face on it, given how generally we loathe clowns as a culture. Why does this repellent image still lure us back? We are so awash in narrative today that we have almost entirely forgotten how horrifying it is to watch another human being suffer. At some point, in most of our lives, we confront the utter lack of glamour in the pain of others, the ugly and undignified truth of suffering. Sometimes it is when we discover within ourselves the deforming power of great emotion, when we realize that we are helplessly in the grip of what people all too casually call “operatic” passion. And sometimes it is when we see something that can never be unseen — an adult undone by grief, a clown with makeup smeared, a lonely man in red pants, isolated in a sea of hostile children, listening to a tenor sing “Put on the costume, the powder and the paint.” spacer 

PHILIP KENNICOTT, chief art critic of The Washington Post, received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. 

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