Pagliacci: The darker side of betrayal

(Editor’s note: Following on the theme of lost love in Poulenc’s passionate La voix humaine, the second one-act opera in our November double-bill, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, will take us through an exploration of the darker side of betrayal.)

Leoncavallo and his dog, 1894

His life was surely eventful, and tended toward the extremes. Commissioned by kings, starved in the streets of Paris, hailed as the most promising composer of his generation, damned as shallow and litigious, Ruggiero Leoncavallo knew it all first hand, but all we know of him is Pagliacci.

Born in Calabria, in the far south of Italy to well-to-do and socially prominent parents, Leoncavallo had an excellent education and all the advantages that Naples could afford, which were many. His father was a judge and his mother, the namesake of Virginia Donizetti and the goddaughter of the famous composer, was a painter. Theirs was a cultured and well-educated family; Art was revered in their household.

As a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Naples, where Donizetti had been the director, Leoncavallo was able to attend performances at the famed Teatro San Carlo as well as the three other opera houses in that ancient and wealthy royal capital. He began life with advantages that Verdi, Donizetti, and many other composers couldn’t dream of.

After completing his course requirements in Naples, Leoncavallo attended the prestigious University of Bologna where he studied writing and literature. In Bologna, he was welcomed into the cream of society, not least because of his unusual accomplishment as a pianist. He composed for and performed at the most distinguished salons, and began (though never completed) a lifelong project inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle on significant moments and persons in Italian history. Only the first of the three operas was composed and performed, I Medici, which, well received for a time, soon disappeared. He also composed a La bohèmethat had initial success but was later eclipsed by Puccini’s brilliant work derived from the same material. Leoncavallo also wrote a number of popular operettas, which have disappeared from the repertoire over time, along with his numerous songs. The one opera that has remained, still one of the most performed operas in the standard repertoire, is Pagliacci.

Les buveurs d’absinthe (The Absinthe Drinkers) by Jean-Francois Raffaëlli, c.1881

In Paris, Leoncavallo became acquainted with Émile Zola, who, along with Honoré de Balzac and Prosper Mérimée, established a new form in French literature referred to as realism, in which the lives of the lower and middle classes were depicted, and in ways that seemed at the time grippingly, even shockingly true to life. Bizet’s Carmen was the very first opera derived from this literary genre, based upon Mérimée’s novella. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was the first of this style written in Italian, where the genre was called verismo; Pagliacci was the second.

Pagliacci begins with a prologue, sung by a baritone who most often enters the stage in front of the main drape, during which an explanation of this radically different style of opera is explained; it serves as a warning to the audience.

When you look on us, dressed in costumes and tinsel,
Ours are human hearts, beating with passion,
We are men like you, for gladness or sorrow,
It is the same broad heaven above us,
The same wide, lonely world before us!

This is an invitation for the audience to enter into a world that is immediate and familiar, rather than a world of imagined fantasy. Instead of seeing knights such as Lohengrin or Parsifal, or troubadours such as Manrico or Blondel, you are forewarned that you will be seeing individuals much like yourself, individuals who bleed when they are pricked. The dramatic force of Pagliacci lies as much in its tenacious determination to give us a story about very human individuals as it is in its richly, powerfully expressive music.

Stage Director Cynthia Stokes (who makes her debut at OSJ with this production) feels very strongly that the story of Pagliacci is universal. This unfortunate situation is as old as humanity and happens in all cultures at all times. To help remove the distance, to take the action out of a specific time or local, she has asked for a very clean, spacious setting that includes nothing that will define place or time. Pearl-gray geometric shapes, a ramp, an altar-like platform, a curved wall, and a blue horizon to indicate the sea, is all there is until the addition of the backdrop for the commedia dell’arte play. The costumes, however, are true to the clothes of Calabria at the turn of the 20th century. In this nebulous world the clown’s heartbreak spans time, as it could be happening anywhere at any time.

(Editor’s note: If you are interested in exploring the world of verismo opera, the Naxos Music Library has an online playlist of arias in the genre; a site subscription is required.)

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