October 9, 2016

Things to watch & listen for in Pagliacci

I've been teaching classes on Pagliacci for the past several weeks. Here's a potpourri of incidental "stuff" about the opera I've been pointing out to students. Un po' di questo, un po' di quello.
Dorothy: a younger Nedda with birds on the brain

Like what? Like these:

The aria "Stridono lassu" is remarkable for being an about-face from soprano arias from the past; that past generation of Italian operas prior to the verismo sensation of the 1890's. Think of every soprano named Leonora; of Gilda, of Lucia Ashton, and their ilk: we generally get an expression of true love for the tenor in their lives. They will love him forever; they would die for him; they miss him; etc. etc. Nedda's big moment, on the other hand, amounts to Get me the hell out of Dodge, my life is like being in prison, let me be a freakin' bird and I will fly far far FAR away, although I might poop on that stupid clown wagon before I go. (Okay, that's not a "translation" per se; I'm kind of re-wording it a little.) Through familiarity, this solo has become little more than an ingratiating melody with an appealing lilt. In 1892, this kind of expression for a soprano was a bit shocking in its depiction of a dysfunctional marriage in which the woman has fallen OUT of love. No more fairy-tale princesses! Not all women are saintly: this is one of the tenets of verismo.

There's a clear-cut example of text-painting in the aria's final moments; the vocal line climbs higher and higher in a graphic depiction of Nedda's wish to join the birds overhead and ascend "up there". The device is obvious, but I mention it because it brings to bear on:

I'm always struck by the manner in which Harold Arlen, in crafting the score for The Wizard of Oz, recalled "Stridono lassu" in Dorothy's song "Somewhere over the rainbow". Like Nedda, Dorothy feels trapped by her family and longs for freedom. Like Nedda, Dorothy uses being a bird flying away as the metaphor for her unhappiness. And - like Nedda! - the final moments of "Rainbow" employ the same device of text-painting; the song ends with an ascending scale on the words "why, o why can't I". Admit it: it never occurred to you that those final notes were text-painting, did it?

I like those moments in a well-written opera when the orchestral underscoring reveals a character's unspoken thoughts; what they're thinking when they're either silent or saying something different. A good example occurs in the moments when "Taddeo" warns the lovers "Colombina" and "Arlecchino" that Colombina's husband "Pagliaccio" is returning early and their rendezvous will be discovered. As Arlecchino beats a hasty retreat, Colombina calls after him:

A stanotte, e per sempre io sarò tua. (Til tonight, and I'll be yours forever.)

What's cool about that is that, underneath her words, a solo cello is playing the theme of her love duet with Silvio. So, though the libretto has Colombina addressing Arlecchino, that cello quotation signals to alert listeners that Nedda has spotted Silvio out in the crowd and is speaking to him alone. This subtlety is not lost on Canio, who has heard her as he prepares for his entrance.

Notice how Leoncavallo cannot resist some overt mocking of old-fashioned virginal, virtuous sopranos from the canon of Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. "Taddeo" (played by Tonio) makes a great show of sarcastically praising "Colombina's" "virtue".

So che sei pura e casta al par di neve! (I know that you are pure and chaste as the driven snow!)

Later, he repeats the word "pura" with comic relish, as the stage audience howls at the obvious irony.
But, again, it's not just Taddeo mocking Colombina; it's Ruggero Leoncavallo "gently" mocking all those saintly and faithful old-fashioned sopranos, from various Leonoras to Lucia to Micaela. The verismo composers felt no little scorn for this type of character. Basta!

I love to point out to neophyte opera-lovers that opera is THEATER and not a CONCERT. When you consume opera only on the radio or your stereo device, you're missing a lot of the pleasure. Here's a good case in point:

From the moment Canio enters, don't just listen to the music; WATCH the artist portraying Nedda. Leoncavallo has provided the performer with a unique acting opportunity. In the Met DVD from the 70's, the formidable actor Teresa Stratas does an incredibly fine job of using body language and facial expressions to reveal Nedda's evolving understanding of her situation. This occurs in stages:
1) At Canio's entrance, Nedda seems not to grasp her immediate peril. Canio has entered on time and, while he appears to have been drinking, it may not be the first time. She assumes that the performance has shelved, for the time being, her marital problems. To quote Cole Porter it's "another op'nin', another show", and Nedda's expression and body language are completely in character. But then,
2) Her husband's unusual intensity of expression and unexpected ad-libs alert her to the fact that this is not an ordinary show.
3) When Canio sheds his wig and costume, launching into his "Pagliaccio non son" solo, he breaks down, broken-heartedly confessing that while he realized she could never love him, he had at least hoped for compassion from her. During this passage, watch Nedda's face. What Stratas did so well was to let her regret register on her face; she understands for the first time how her actions have hurt Canio. The consequences of adultery seem real, and she feels badly. HOWEVER,
4) It changes when Canio pivots from grief to rage, shouting that she doesn't deserve love, she has no shame and she now "disgusts" him. (It's Canio's Donald Trump moment...) When he goes on the attack, Nedda pivots from empathy and regret to pride and anger. His scorn for her turns her defiant, and this defiance is what dooms her. If Canio had not de-valued and abased her, but had rather stuck to expressing heartbreak, who know? Perhaps she would have embraced him and begged forgiveness. But he triggered her rage with his own, and this emotional stand-off could only end in violence.

Routine to concern to empathy/regret to angry defiance: this is a remarkable evolution that takes place in something like six or seven minutes. The soprano taking on Nedda better bring her acting chops!

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