Operapedia: Pagliacci
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Operapedia: Pagliacci 

by Henry Stewart

Operapedia Leoncavallo lg 216
© AKG-Images 

 Time and Place  

The opera is known as a defining example of verismo, which aimed to tell less sentimental stories, about everyday people dealing with realistic emotions. Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana was the movement’s theatrical pioneer. Al others traveled in its bushwhacked path. Leoncavallo wrote Pagliacci, his first opera, in response; the two had premieres only two years apart and have long been performed together. It’s Leoncavallo’s best-remembered work—make that only remembered work, though he composed twenty others. He “died… bitter and despondent,” David Dubal writes in The Essential Canon of Classical Music. But won’t we all.



The Basics  

An actor discovers that his wife is cheating on him. He confronts her about it while they’re performing in a play whose plot mirrors their real lives, then kills her and her lover.



Leoncavallo was more Orson Welles than Kurt Cobain; he had a long life and career but never lived up to his initial success. Some critics even wondered if Leoncavallo would have been better off dying six months after the Pagliacci premiere. “Would not the obituarists have deplored the loss?” asked The New Music Review from October 1919, two months after Leoncavallo’s death at sixty-two. “‘Although there is too often a lack of finesse and taste, nevertheless this opera gave great promise for the future.…’ Thus we might have read.” But thus we didn’t, because he kept composing, including a Bohème, which had its unfortunately timed premiere a year after Puccini’s, which is now one of the most popular and best-loved operas in the world. Leoncavallo’s? Not so much.


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© AKG-Images 


The  Performance  We Wish We’d Seen  

Today, Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana seem inseparable—an inevitability, a cliché—but they were first heard together in 1893 at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi. On December 22 that year, someone at the Met cut each’s previous partner and stuck them together. (Pagliacci made its house debut earlier that month with Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, which in 1892 had been paired at the Met with Cavalleria Rusticana, which was then performed alongside Gounod’s Philémon et Baucis, now hardly ever performed.) That night must have been exhilarating, to witness each intensifying the impact of the other without being taken for granted.


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◀︎ Spoiler Alert  

Leoncavallo insisted the murder was based on a true case, adjudicated by his magistrate father, but at least one playwright sued the composer/librettist for plagiarism. (He later dropped the suit.) The themes may have been worn, but “Leoncavallo’s undeniable originality lies in [how] he was able to combine news item and play in a tragedy of unusually disturbing violence by making ‘stage’ and ‘life’ identical,” Michele Girardi writes in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Larry Charles exhibited similar originality when he wove the plot into a Season Four episode of Seinfeld, in which Elaine’s new boyfriend starts calling her Nedda (Canio’s unfaithful wife) and accuses her of cheating on him—before he dons a clown costume and makeup.


Something  Completely  Different    

The sad clown motif, common to velvet paintings, owes its popularity to Pagliacci, appearing on the cover of Frank Sinatra’sOnly the Lonely and in the lyrics of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” (“Just like Pagliacci did /I try to keep my sadness hid”). In Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Watchman, one character relates a joke, riffing on a bit from Dickens’s Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi: “Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed.... Doctor says, ‘Treatment is simple. Great clown, Pagliacci, is in town tonight. Go and see him....’ Man bursts into tears. Says, ‘But, doctor ... I am Pagliacci.’”

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© Shutterstock 
 In Pop Culture

“Vesti la giubba” shows up frequently in popular culture, especially television, such as on a Season 17 episode of The Simpsons, “The Italian Bob,” in which it’s credibly sung by Kelsey Grammer—and not by Dan Castellaneta’s Krusty the Clown, who substitutes the gooseflesh-raising iconic line, “Ridi, Pagliaccio,” with “No more Rice Krispies!” alluding to a famous (and still funny) television commercial from the ’60s.

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© Royal Academy of Music/Lebrecht Music & Arts 

◀︎ First Performances  

The opera had its premiere in Milan (though not at its world-famous opera house, La Scala) in May 1892. Victor Maurel, whom Verdi had cast as his first Iago and would cast as his first Falstaff (both with premieres at, ahem, La Scala), sang Tonio, the Iago-esque character who sets the tragedy in motion; Arturo Toscanini conducted. Within two years, it had been translated into every language from Swedish to Serbo–Croat. The lead, Canio, became Enrico Caruso’s signature role; he first performed it in Salerno, in November 1896. Guinness World Records credits his 1902 recording of “Vesti la giubba” with being the first record to sell a million copies; the first CD to do so would not quite be of equal stature—Dire Straits’s Brothers in Arms.

Surprise Showstopper  ► 

The actual showstopper—the devastating last line, “La commedia è finita!”—unifies the tragedies of art and life so that each packs double the wallop. Commedia dell’arte, the improvisatory, itinerant performance tradition at the opera’s center, never stung like this! In the orchestral score, the line was Tonio’s, a bookend to his reflexive prologue—itself once a showstopper, leading to an encore for baritone Mario Ancona at its Met premiere—in which he explains Leoncavallo’s intent: “The author has tried to paint / a glimpse of life / And his only maxim is that the artist / is a man, and for men / he must write.” But other early sources give it to Canio, a mournful or defiant postmurder utterance, and Caruso made it stick. In recent times, Tonio has usually gotten his line back.

Operapedia Commedia lg 316 © Lebrecht Music & Arts 

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◀︎  Hit Tune  

The heartbreaking tenor showcase “Vesti la giubba” is one of the most recognizable arias in all opera, ubiquitous in Western culture. It even shows up in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, on the in-game radio station Double Clef FM, an opera channel that comes on when you steal a car driven by the game’s Italian crime families—Sindacco, Leone, Forelli—because, for the intellectually lazy, mafia equals opera.

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© Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera 
 Where It Is This Season

Through early summer, twelve productions have been announced in as many cities. This month, you can catch the revival of last season’s new production at the Met, or hear it on the Saturday-matinée radio broadcast. (See p. 58.) In June, you can see Pagliacci all over Europe, from Cardiff to Metz. 

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