September 30, 2016

The mystery of "Pagliacci"

Do you ever listen to soft-rock oldies? You may have encountered a ballad called "Brandy" from the band Looking Glass. It recounts the story of a barmaid and the sailor who (repeatedly) told her "you're a fine girl; what a good wife you would be". Released in August, 1972, the song caught on and spent a week at #1 on the Billboard charts on its way to selling a million records. (No, children, not downloads or digital files -- nice, round, waxy vinyl discs played by needles on turntables.)

They never had another number one song again. They were the proverbial "one-hit wonder".

And now to consider the second half of Virginia Opera's season-opening double bill, Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. This story of a troupe of clowns proved an immediate success upon its appearance in 1892. Discounting a first attempt at opera composition when the composer was not yet twenty years old (an opus called Chatterton that he attempted to re-write and launch a few years later), Pagliacci was his first completed opera. An impressive feat! Not everyone can write operas, you know; it's pretty difficult -- calls for a variety of skill-sets. Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Bizet -- all had apprentice periods during which they wrote operas that have rarely been performed. Eventually, of course, they "found their voice" as writers love to say, and masterpieces followed.

The strange aspect of Leoncavallo is that Pagliacci, a work showing a skilled hand in characterization, orchestration, melodic invention and narrative skill, was followed by a dismal string of unrelieved failures. These include:
I Medici
La bohème (don't get excited; it's not "the" Bohème, it's "a" Bohème)
Der Roland von Berlin

Wow - wouldn't the talent and technique so abundantly on display in Pagliacci have suggested that the law of averages would yield at least one success for the balance of his career?

What? Happened?

I think the key lies in analyzing the formula that made Pagliacci so sure-fire. It was a formula that could not with honor be repeated. It appears to me that Leoncavallo modeled his 1892 hit show on plot points, characters, vocal styles, musical characterizations and structures from three operas he admired and wished, as a young composer learning the ropes of operatic creation, to emulate. These are:
1) Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (1890); the traditional double-bill partner of Pagliacci;
2) Verdi's Otello (1887); and
3) Bizet's Carmen (1875)

Of course, the sensation of Cavalleria directly inspired Leoncavallo to try his hand at the genre, sensing that Mascagni's star was well worth hitching his wagon to. But it wasn't just the peasant class and their bad behavior he emulated. Mascagni's substitution of a short orchestral intermezzo in place of an intermission led Leoncavallo not only to borrow the idea, but to make his a virtual clone of Mascagni's.

The Cavalleria intermezzo begins with a chorus of pianissimo high strings playing a melody of pathos. In short order it builds to a climax of throbbingly passionate rhetoric. By no coincidence at all, these characteristics define the intermezzo in Pagliacci  as well.

Now, don't get upset; I'm not dissing Leoncavallo! Less experienced composers generally lean heavily on the work of masters they admire in their early works. Mozart wrote in the style of J.C. Bach at first, and there are many similar cases. And Leoncavallo's intermezzo is gorgeous. But the structure and effects are much the same as those in Mascagni's model..

The most important model, however came with Otello. Leoncavallo claimed that the genesis of Pagliacci's plot was a sordid murder trial from the 1860's, one in which a family friend was the victim and the future composer's father presided as magistrate. The famous Prologue that opens the piece appears to reference this, saying: "Deep-embedded memories stirred one day within (the author's) heart, and with real tears he wrote". (This is likely the only case in which a fictional character seems to know the back story of the artist who created him!)

As quaint and Romantic as this notion is, it collapses when one realizes to what extent Pagliacci is a verismo re-writing of Otello. And I do mean Verdi's opera, not Shakespeare's play, as aspects of the music are similar in addition to this side-by-side summary of plot and characters:

OTELLO, leader of his people, is married to DESDEMONA. He loves her, but his love is tainted by pathological jealousy. IAGO resents Otello and plans to ruin him by suggesting that his wife has been unfaithful. OTELLO is devasted and heartbroken, leading to the murder of DESDEMONA in the opera's final moments. OTELLO discovers that IAGO was lying: DESDEMONA was innocent. Realizing he has lost his honor, OTELLO takes his own life.

CANIO, leader of an acting troupe, is married to NEDDA. He loves her, but his love is tainted by pathological jealousy. TONIO resents Nedda and plans to ruin her by suggesting to Canio that she has been unfaithful. CANIO is devastated and heartbroken, leading to the murder of NEDDA in the opera's final moments. Since the opera is in the verismo school, TONIO was not lying: NEDDA was guilty, meaning that Canio has regained his honor. He kills her lover Silvio.

Heard in this context, Canio's iconic aria "Vesti la giubba", especially in the climactic "Ridi pagliaccio" passage, can be understood as a descendent of Otello's "Dio! mi potevi sciagliar". Both are anguished monologues in which the cuckolded husbands grieve for the loss of their marital happiness with stentorian outbursts.

Similarly, the moment when Tonio counsels Canio, who has witnessed Nedda's rendezvous, to dissemble and behave with cunning and subtlety in identifying her lover,reminds us of Iago's feigned friendship to Otello. His low-key, conversational tone puts the listener in mind of "Era la notte" the solo in which Iago floats his false accusation. Neither baritone role is conceived as an over-the-top villain, blustering, shouting and cackling. Each adopts a casual tone; each knows that their victim needs only the merest nudge to cause an eruption of suspicion and rage. The vocal styles are appropriately restrained.

And as for Carmen, here Leoncavallo duplicates with great precision the final confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose. Holding a knife to her throat, Jose threatens to kill her on the spot unless she tell him she loves him. With a defiance bespeaking her stubborn insistence on living life on her own terms, Carmen refuses with a compelling declaration ending on a sustained high note. Death follows within moments.

Note the end of the clown show in Pagliacci. Canio, no longer in character, brandishes a knife as he demands to know the name of Nedda's lover. Her response of fiery denial is an obvious homage to Carmen, and she too is stabbed immediately. The use of a knife, rather than strangling as in Otello, is another nod to Carmen.

Now, don't get me wrong! Again, ALL young composers engage in such borrowings early in their careers. I'm not disparaging Leoncavallo or his opera. In fact, the skill with which he stitched all these elements into a visceral and thrilling work of theater is stunning. He did good!

So what went wrong with his post-Pagliacci failures? Simply this, I suppose: eventually, composers must turn away from models and find their own distinctive voice. No more borrowings. In Leoncavallo's case, turning away from red-blooded verismo (a term he hated) left his "authentic" voice exposed, with the depressing reality that it simply wasn't sufficiently interesting to carry the day.

But Pagliacci is a legacy any artist would be proud to claim. It will never die.


  1. Pagliacci was the first Opera I saw at IU as a Freshman working Tech Crew in rehearsal. I was shocked at the impact it had on me! Tears! "The Comedy has ended" spoken stunned me! The betrayal, the self delusion, the powerful emotions! It had to come from the heart of the composer - not to be duplicated!

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