October 12, 2016

Blurring fiction and reality in "Pagliacci"

Enrico Caruso as Canio
Everyone knows that the finale of Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" is a play-within-a-play. The traveling clown troupe led by Canio, with a stage audience of chorus and extras gathered around to watch, enacts the same comedy they have performed innumerable times. We in the "real" audience have been provided key information that almost everyone in the stage audience lacks: that the comedy is mirroring recent off-stage events: Nedda, like the character she plays, has had an adulterous affair, and her cuckolded husband caught her in the act.

But there are levels of reality! We in the audience feel god-like in our omniscient awareness that two things are happening: A) the rapidly-devolving clown show, which lulled us into complacency for a while with its sight gags and rubber chickens; and B) the real unfolding tragedy that culminates with a "real" act of violence.

But the joke is on us: NONE OF IT IS REAL! We don't, actually, have "fiction" and "reality" happening simultaneously. Nedda doesn't really die! She'll come out in a minute and take a bow!

This blurring of fiction and reality is foreshadowed in the famous Prologue. We might not have had this classic baritone solo had not Victor Maurel, a super-star operatic singer who created many of Verdi's baritone roles, demanded an aria for Tonio. There being no way to insert another solo into the body of the libretto without destroying the rapid pace of the narrative, Leoncavallo opted to bring Maurel out in front of the curtain before the action.

This Prologue ends up being a kind of manifesto of the "nuova scuola" of Italian opera, most often called verismo (truth). Like a musical Martin Luther nailing his "treatises" on an opera house door, Leoncavallo lays out his story-telling ideal: This is not fake! It's REAL, I tell you! (Interestingly, moments later as the action begins, Canio contradicts Tonio, advising the villagers that "Life and the theater are not the same thing.)

But in the middle of the solo comes a most curious passage, one in which there is another intriguing blurring of the real and the artificial, one that, on reflection, causes a greater degree of confusion that does the clown show at the end.

Leoncavallo is on record as having claimed that the story of the opera was based on a true incident; a well-known murder trial that involved his father, Vincenze Leoncavallo, who presided over the trial as town magistrate. What's more, the crime had affected the family personally as the victim was a family associate.

Vincenze had hired a local youth, 22-year-old Gaetano Scavello to assist in raising his two sons, Ruggero (the future composer) and Leone. Scavello was in love with a village girl, but had competition: two brothers named D'Alessandro. Arguments, macho displays of "tough-guy" intimidation and naked jealousy quickly escalated until the day the brothers set a trap, laying in wait for Scavello. Each D'Alessandro set on the victim with a knife, resulting in charges of murder. These days, Vincenze would doubtless have recused himself from rendering judgement, but in any case, the brothers went away to life sentences at hard labor.

Now, you may take Leoncavallo at his word if you wish, and accept his assertion that the events described above bore fruit in the Pagliacci libretto. To be fair, both the actual crime and the opera share themes of jealousy over a woman and death by stabbing. But to Your Humble Blogger, that's weak tea. As stated in my last post, it seems clear that Verdi's Otello is the obvious model, buth in plot points, characterizations and even vocal styles.

Whatever the case, here's the fascinating element of the Prologue: Tonio begins referring to "our author"; that is, the composer of the opera; that is (I guess!!) none other than Ruggero Leoncavallo. Dig this:

"Our author has endeavoured .. to pain for you a slice of life. ... Deep-embedded memories stirred one day within his heart, and with real tears he wrote, and marked the time with sighs!"

Whoa. So let me get this straight: Tonio, a fictional character, is relating from personal knowledge what motivated the real human composer Leoncavallo to create the work in which he, Tonio, is singing? What - did the two of them meet at Starbucks and chat about the genesis of plot over Frappucinos? Perhaps the reason Canio contradicted Tonio's claim of "realism" is that he went to the wrong Starbucks and missed meeting the composer who made him up...

Okay, this is getting surreal.

And THEN! When the baritone begins that sweepingly lyrical section beginning "E voi piuttosto" he traditionally (though not in Virginia Opera's staging) removes the clown wig giving up his clown persona, speaking to us, the "real" audience out there, in his "real" persona. It's another neat bit of foreshadowing, because the bookend to that gesture will be Canio when he rips off his wig in anger, declaiming "No! Pagliaccio non son!" (No! I am not Pagliaccio!)

Now, follow me here: we know who Canio is when he rips off his wig: he's Canio, Nedda's "real" husband.

But who is Tonio when his wig comes off? Who is he when he reminds us that the artists we'll be seeing onstage are real men of flesh and blood? Is he Tonio? He's obviously not in his clown role of Taddeo.

Is he.... Sherrill Milnes, the Tonio in my DVD? Is he Leonard Warren, the Tonio of my CD? Are we, in other words, to assume that, since "Tonio" never removes his wig, then the wigless baritone who confides hes realness to us in a heart-to heart moment of intimacy is ... the actual performer portraying Tonio?

Is that it?

CAN'T BE! Because, of course, this "reality" is an illusion. NONE OF IT IS REAL, the long-dead corpse of Signor Scavello notwithstanding. Milnes, or Warren, or I myself (I often sing this number in the shower...) are NOT confiding a moment of sincerity in the Prologue; we're just regurgitating (okay, fine, let's say "recreating") words and music that have been sung for over a century and a quarter. "Carne ed ossa"? (Literally "flesh and bone", although ALL English translations substitute the more idiomatic "flesh and blood) Not so much. More like ink on paper, until a Milnes or a Warren creates the ILLUSION of "reality".

It's all..... blurry. This is, for me, the best and coolest aspect of this overly-familiar opera. It messes with your perceptions and, if you weep at Nedda's death (don't bother weeping for Silvio - he's kind of a tool), Leoncavallo pulls of one of opera's greatest "gotcha" moments. He made you forget that the "real" tragedy...................

....................is also fiction.

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