The Musical Story of “Pagliacci”

The Musical Story of “Pagliacci”

Posted by Paul Dorgan in 40th Anniversary Season, Education, History of the Opera, Online Learning, Pagliacci 05 Mar 2018

There are five characters in Leoncavallo’s opera, and all but one of them are members of “a troupe of strolling players” (to quote Cole Porter’s Kiss me, Kate) who have arrived “in Calabria near Montalto” (which is in the south-western part of Italy) on August 15—then a Holy Day in the Catholic calendar, to celebrate the Assumption of Mary into Heaven: attendance at Mass was required, and maybe an evening service as well; work was forbidden. The troupe’s repertoire derives from the old Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte, with its stock character-types: the sad clown (Pulcinello, or, in this case, Pagliaccio); the perky servant (Colombina); Arlecchino is the dashing young lover; this particular company has Tonio, a hunchbacked actor: not a “type” associated with the commedia tradition; but, since the plays are improvised, why not include him! Canio (tenor) leads this troupe, and he is, or isn’t, Pagliaccio in the performance we see. Nedda (soprano) is his wife, and she plays Colombina; the actor Beppe plays Arlecchino; Tonio becomes Taddeo in the play. The only character in the opera who is not a member of the acting company is the baritone Silvio, “a villager.” There is, of course, a “chorus of countryfolk”; the composer is more specific, if more confusing, in his score: he asks for Ragazzi (Boys); Donne (Women: sopranos); Tenors divided in 2; Basses; and then Contadini (who would be local farmers/countryfolk).

Leoncavallo’s orchestra is fairly standard for the 1890s, though with some oddities. 3 Flutes, with the 3rd Flute doubling on the Piccolo; 2 oboes, with 1st oboe doubling on English Horn (oddity – it’s usually 2nd oboe); 2 Clarinets; 2 Bassoons; Bass Clarinet; 4 horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones; Bass Tuba; Timpani; Bass Drum; Cymbals; 2 harps (oddity – usually one was enough, if it was required at all); strings. Off-stage he asks for an oboe; a trumpet; bells; and a solo violin (oddities – which we’ll note at the appropriate places). A bass drum is played off- and on-stage, as well as in the orchestra pit.

The orchestral Prologo – it’s not an “Overture,” nor a “Prelude” – is hugely energetic, and its opening rhythm will return, so remember it! Then we hear bits of two melodies which, without giving anything away, will prove to foretell the conflict which will happen in the course of the evening. The 1st horn, “with sadness,” gives us the first theme, while the violins answer more passionately; but don’t ignore the misterioso theme in the cellos which seems almost a bit of throw-away connective tissue between two larger sections: it ain’t! Certainly all of this orchestral busy-ness seems to be leading up to something, and, in the days when the curtain was down during an Overture/Prelude, that something was surprising: the baritone who will sing Tonio/Taddeo comes through the stage curtain; apologizes for interrupting the orchestra; and tells us, proudly, that he’s the Prologo.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells the troupe of strolling players who show up in Elsinore that “the purpose of playing…is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to Nature.’” With Pag we may wonder what that mirror might reflect, and at whom that reflection is directed. The Prologo baritone tells us that “[T]]he author, in reviving the old Commedia tradition, has sent me out to talk to you.” But why do we, the audience in the Opera House, need to be talked to, unless the baritone (or Leoncavallo) intends to include – involve? – us as a sort of “extra” (and silent – except for the occasional applause and the “bravos!” after a well-sung aria) chorus of villagers. A canny (as the Scots might say) ploy: for immediately Leoncavallo presents us with one of the intriguing aspects of his libretto: the conflict/confusion between “real” life and “stage” life, especially when the “real” lives of the actors are reflected in the mirror of their improvised Commedia dell’arte “stage” lives. In olden days, this initially anonymous baritone tells us, the actors signaled to the audience that their tears, their sufferings, and torments were false. Not anymore: the author gives you a slice of life, and his story is based on something that actually happened. So, instead of the old “stage” emotions, we will give you “real” love and hate and cries of rage and bitter laughter. Then, in one of the greatest melodies in all Italian opera (and I am very aware of the great melodies of Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini!), Leoncavallo’s baritone launches into a kind of profession of faith: “ignore our shabby costumes; think of our souls, for we are men of flesh and blood, just like you!” But whose faith is he professing? The composer’s? The baritone’s? The character the baritone plays? Hamlet’s single mirror seems to have become a veritable Hall of Mirrors!

Up with the curtain, and on with the show!

Some “footnotes-which-aren’t-footnotes” here.

1) From 1882 – 1887 Leoncavallo lived and worked in Paris, where he met the baritone Victor Maurel who, in February 1887, created the role of Iago in Verdi’s Otello, and would later (in 1893) create the title role in his Falstaff. Maurel was impressed enough by the young composer to recommend him to the Milanese publishing house of Ricordi, which paid him a stipend to complete a planned opera based on the Medici family. He was co-opted by Ricordi to help out with the libretto of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut – altogether about 6 people, including both Ricordi and Puccini, were involved in this task! After his Medici opera was turned down for production at the last minute, Leoncavallo bethought himself of imitating the sensational success in 1890 of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (Cav), [could insert pic of Cav Rus here, if we need a break from text] and set about writing words and music for Pagliacci (Pag). Maurel, backed by Mascagni’s publisher (who was now Leoncavallo’s), used his professional clout to persuade the management at Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme, to stage the opera. Which happened on May 21, 1892. He, however, felt that his role needed more prominence: an aria, perhaps? Leoncavallo was smart enough to realize that an aria for the character Tonio would be impossible, and was canny enough (that Scots term again!) to realize that his baritone would jump at the chance of probably the only legitimate instance in all of opera of what is derogatorily called “Park and Bark”: the singer enters, finds a good place on stage, sings his/her aria while moving as little as possible, ignores anyone else who might happen to be on stage and might happen to have a dramatic reason for being there and listening and reacting to the aria’s text! This Prologo is “Park and Bark” par excellance, and Maurel must have rejoiced in that. What a pity there is no recording of his performance of this, though there are some recordings of arias from his Verdi creations: Iago and Falstaff.

2) If you’re looking at a Vocal Score (where the orchestra has been reduced to an almost playable version on the piano), you’ll notice that the words “Poichè in iscena ancor le antiche maschere…” are directed to be spoken over a solo cello melody. Not so in my orchestral score, and not so in any recording I’ve heard; nor in any production for which I’ve been the rehearsal pianist: somewhere over the years, the baritone pirated those few bars, and sings, rather than speaks, them. Thank you, probably, Victor!

3) If you’re still looking at that Vocal Score while listening to a performance, or watching one on Youtube, you’ll notice that Canio/Pagliaccio, and Tonio/Taddeo introduce high notes whenever they can! For once, the singers’ egos were right – and those conductors who insist on performing an opera exactly as the composer wrote it “don’t…”, as a dear friend and a very respected conductor once said, “…know the tunes.”  Meaning they ignore the traditions accumulated over the years without really examining and assessing the musical values of those traditions.

An off-stage trumpet fanfare is answered by an off-stage drum. That “stage” tonality, announcing the arrival of the troupe of strolling players, is contradicted by the “real” tonality from the violins in the orchestra introducing the villagers, which turns out to be a half-step higher than the “stage” life. Leoncavallo’s libretto seems, initially, confused: after the curtain rises on his Act One, he tells us that “the right of the stage is almost completely taken up with a travelling theatre.”  But it’s not until after the opening chorus welcoming the return of the troupe of strolling players, that he tells us that “[a} picturesque cart…drawn by a donkey comes in, led by Beppe in Harlequin costume…” The villagers cheer the return of “Pagliaccio” – “the Prince of Clowns” – and demand to know when the performance will take place. Tonio beats on the big drum; Canio begs to be heard; and finally the villagers shut up. A spectacular play, he tells us, will be presented at 11.00 this evening. You’ll see, he tells them, Pagliaccio’s troubles and how he gets his revenge; you’ll also see the bulky Tonio plan his revenge.

Tonio now enters to help Nedda down from the cart, but Canio beats him off, and lifts her down. The villagers mock Tonio who, as he leaves, mutters revenge.

One of the villagers invites Canio to join them for a drink at their local watering-hole; he accepts, as does Beppe; Tonio refuses, saying he has to take care of the donkey. Which prompts the villager to suggest, jokingly, that Tonio wants to stay behind to seduce Nedda.

Not a good idea, sings Canio. “Stage” life and “real” life are different. On “stage” (cellos play a vaguely “minutetto-ish” melody – remember it, because it will return!) when I surprise my wife with a supposed lover, I give a comic sermon and allow myself to be comically beaten; which the audience loves. But the ending would be very different if, in “real” life, I should surprise Nedda: that misterioso cello theme from the Prologo returns and gets passed around between strings and winds. Nedda wonders what he might mean. Do you suspect her?  the guys ask; in a much slower tempo, Canio assures the villagers that he adores his wife, and, to prove it, kisses her.

An off-stage oboe is heard. The sound of the traditional piper, combined with that of the church bells, calls the villagers to the Vespers service. Leoncavallo asks for 3 off-stage bells, but adds a note: they “should be played throughout the number as if the sound came from a distance.” I’ve been involved in a number of productions of Pag and, honestly, I don’t remember hearing those off-stage bells – even when part of my job was to conduct the off-stage instruments: obviously the bell-players took Leoncavallo’s note very much to heart, and played at such a distance that we never heard them! While the Villagers sing about going off to the evening service (and warn young lovers that they are being observed by the old folk – dramatic irony, perhaps, in view of what is about to happen?) Canio changes from his clown’s costume, bids goodbye to Nedda, and leaves with Beppe and some of the men. The rest of the villagers head off to church.

The look Canio gave her at the end of his aria frightened Nedda so much that she was afraid he might have read her inner thoughts, and he can be so brutal! That misterioso cello theme again!

Harps and winds transport her, and us, to the sensual world of mid-August, which fills Nedda with life and unknown secret desires. A flock of birds flying away (trills from the violins; shivers from the flutes; and the first harp wildly arpeggiating up and down) reminds her that her mother, a fortune-teller, understood their calls, and told her about them. Launched into flight, birds fly through the sky, following a dream to a strange country, even if they don’t know where that is. But they follow the strange power which draws them ever onward. Wishful thinking on Nedda’s part? You be the judge of that. But the aria is a wonderful show-piece for the soprano who can communicate all the conflicting emotions of the opening pages and then, in the main part of the aria, soar with the birds, as they fly off to their unknown, but longed-for, destinations. My next sentence might surprise you, coming from someone who was married to a soprano who had an international career and who later became a renowned teacher of voice; and coming from someone who spent much of his professional life in opera companies, playing staging rehearsals, and working one-on-one with singers who arrived not totally prepared; and who is now working with Voice Performance Majors at the U. Actually, it’s not a sentence – it’s a command: Listen to the orchestra! Nedda’s vocal line is lovely, and very gratifying to sing. But Leoncavallo’s orchestration is simply magical. The whispering harps; the divided violins; the solo horn which echoes, if not completes, Nedda’s vocal phrases! When she describes the storms that the birds encounter, we hear them in the strings, but they never drown the singer! And then the final section (“broaden the phrases, and very cantabile”), when her melody is joined by the cellos, flute and bassoon, and later by the oboe and clarinet! Wonderful!

Her brilliantly orchestrated fantasy is brutally interrupted by a discordant note from the bassoons and a shudder from the strings. Tonio is there, and has been for much of her aria, though it’s not clear how much of it he’s heard. Nedda had thought he had joined the others for drinks: he was fascinated by her singing. “How poetic!” she answers. “Don’t mock me, Nedda!” He acknowledges his physical disformity (and the melody he sings will return in the cellos when he’s Taddeo in the play – another of those “real” life/”stage” life moments -) but confesses he dreams of hearing her say… “I love you.” Nedda interrupts. While the violins play what we may as well call the “Commedia” theme, she tells him he can play the lover on-stage, but not in real life.

The earlier misterioso theme now becomes more menacing, as Tonio tries to force himself on her. In desperation, she grabs the donkey whip and hits him with it, which elicits one of those oaths I wrote about in the Verismo chapter: “Per la vergin pia di mezz’agosto!” (By the holy virgin of mid-August – meaning ‘by the Assumption of Mary into Heaven!’) Accompanied by trombones, he curses her, and, vowing revenge, he leaves.

Now enters Silvio to the passionate violin theme we heard in the orchestral Prologo, which accompanies their initial exchange. She is concerned that he might have been seen, but he assures her he saw Canio and Beppe at the tavern and came through the woods. “If you’d got here a moment sooner,” she tells him, “you’d have run into Tonio.” “That fool!” Nedda tells him of the encounter, while that misterioso theme, now more agitated, underlines her story. When she tells him of hitting Tonio with the whip, his “curse” theme blares out from low winds and strings.

A variation of Silvio’s rising, passionate, theme in the strings prompts him to wonder how long she can deal with the life she is now leading. “I know you don’t love Canio, and that you hate your touring life; if you really love me, come with me.” The oboe, which always sounds sad, accompanies her plea not to tempt her: it would be madness for her to do that.

For some reason it has become usual to cut a chunk of the duet here; this is unfortunate, since it tells us why she feels as she does: Fate is against us, she tells Silvio, so words are useless; but I cannot tear you from my heart; I will live on the love you have awakened in me. Besides losing an element of Nedda’s character, we also lose some luscious music!

Enraged, Silvio accuses her of not loving him. “But I do!”

Tonio, having taken care of the donkey, re-enters; sees them together and mutters to himself, with the “curse” theme, that he’s caught her, and exits.

“You leave tomorrow!” A clarinet musically tells us of his agitation, but it, and he, calm down. Accompanied by shimmering strings, he wonders why she bewitched him if she would leave him so soon. Growing increasingly passionate, and accompanied by his rising theme, he presses his case. With a variation of that rising theme, Nedda professes that she wants to live, calmly and peacefully, with him. Quietly they pledge to forget everything. Look into my eyes, she says, and kiss me; of course he does both: I love you, they both whisper.

Quietly the double-basses insinuate Tonio’s “curse” theme underneath their embrace. Go quietly, Tonio warns Canio, so you can surprise them. Silvio tells Nedda he’ll be waiting for her after the performance (solo violin plays his rising theme); tonight I’ll be yours forever, she replies. Remember that! Canio reveals himself with a cry, and Nedda tells Silvio to get out of there as quickly as possible in one word: Fuggi (“Fly!”). The low instruments play a very agitated variation of the misterioso cello theme we first heard in the Prologo. Silvio escapes and, though Nedda tries to stop him, Canio rushes after Silvio.

Bravo, says Nedda cynically to Tonio (more of the “curse” theme); I did what I could, he tells her, and hope I’ll do better! You disgust me! Good!

Canio returns empty-handed: Silvio knows that path too well. Horns threaten with the theme we first heard from the bass clarinet and horns in Canio’s first aria when he told the villagers that things would be very different if he found out his wife was, in “real” life, unfaithful. Before I slit your throat, producing his knife, I want the name of your lover. Never! Beppe enters just in time to disarm Canio and remind him that the villagers are on their way to see the performance. Tonio assures Canio the lover will return and probably betray himself during the performance. Beppe encourages Canio to get ready for the performance and tells Tonio to beat the drum to summon the audience.

Left alone, Canio begins one of the best-known of all tenor arias. Which reinforces/emphasizes Leoncavallo’s underlying idea of this opera: the confusion between “real” life and “stage” life. How can I act, he sings, when I no longer know what I’m doing! But I have to! Put on the costume and the make-up; the audience has bought their tickets, and they expect to be entertained. So what if Arlecchino steals your wife! Your job is to make the audience laugh, so turn your real feelings of anguish and sorrow into comedy. Laugh, Clown! Laugh at your broken heart, and laugh at the pain which poisons your heart!

End of Act 1, in Leoncavallo’s score. Then we’re given an orchestral “Intermezzo,” which seems to have become a requirement for a while after Pietro Mascagni wrote one for Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), his first and only great success. After a few bars designed to hush the audience in the opera house, violins, and then the full orchestra, remind us of Tonio’s Prologo aria. And paralleling the end of that aria, the off-stage trumpet, accompanied by its drum, begins Act 2. Beppe is putting out benches for the expected audience, while Tonio beats his drum to summon them. Nedda, dressed for her role as Colombina, collects the money and has a brief exchange with Silvio, who reminds her of their post-performance date.

After complaining about the heat, and the crush of people, and the difficulty of finding a good seat – typical audience! – the villagers wonder, in a great musical moment, what is taking so long for the play to begin, and only quiet down when the curtain rises, and they hush each other up. (Or should that read “they hush up each other”?)

A whole new sound world is introduced when the curtain rises on the play which is marked “Commedia” in the score. The orchestra recalls a more classical time, and uses, for the most part, strings, with support from the winds and an occasional horn; the tempo is that of a Minuet. We are in a little room with two side doors and a practical window at the back; there is a table and two chairs.

Colombina (Nedda) is anxious: her husband, Pagliaccio (Canio), will be home late. Musically this would equate to the “trio” section of a Haydn/Mozart symphony “Minuet” movement (usually the third in a four-movement work). Back to the “A” section for her complaint that Taddeo (Tonio) is nowhere to be found.

She is interrupted by the off-stage sound of a violin, imitating a guitar, tuning; it’s a little under pitch at first, but finally gets there, and the pizzicato strings, with the occasional flute(s) or oboe interjection, accompany the off-stage serenade sung by Arlecchino (Beppe).

Back to the music which introduced the Commedia. Colombina is delighted that Arlecchino is outside, waiting for their agreed signal that the coast is clear. Before she can do that, though, Taddeo (Tonio) enters, and, gazing lovingly at her, bursts out into a vocal cadenza, noting how beautiful she is. The audience loves it! He wishes he could tell her of his love. Cellos have a variation of the “menacing” theme which takes on the character of the Haydn/Mozart music which introduced the “Commedia,” and which will be heard again.

A huge sigh from Taddeo. “Is that you, creature?” “Yes.” “Pagliaccio’s not here.” “I know.” All to pizzicato strings outlining the vocal lines. Comically, winds and strings accompany Nedda’s “Why are you standing there; where’s the chicken you bought?” Everything slows down as he produces it from the basket he carries, and offers it to his “divine virgin,” with an exaggeratedly ornamented divina.

A new Haydn/Mozart idea from the strings while Taddeo starts to express his love. She goes to the window, gives a sign to Arlecchino, and then wants to know how much Taddeo spent at the grocery store. “1.50”, and continues his protestation of love. “I know you are as pure, and as chaste as snow! Yes, chaste!…as snow. And though you seem hard, I cannot put you out of my mind!” While the violins play the “Commedia” theme, listen to the cellos playing the melody Tonio sang in his Act 1 attempt at seducing Nedda.

Arlecchino arrives through the open window, tells Taddeo to be off, who, to trite, fake scurrying Haydn/Mozart figuration from the winds and strings, realizes they are in love, blesses them and leaves, promising to stand to watch for them. The audience laughs and applauds.

Violins launch into a Gavotte, which is to be played “elegantly,” which is taken over by flutes and oboes; violas, soon joined by bassoons, provide a delightful counter-theme. Colombina, setting the table, promises a splendid little meal; Arlecchino has provided a bottle of “divine nectar.” He then gives her a phial: give this to Pagliaccio before he goes to bed, and then let’s leave together.

The door bursts open and, to different fake—but equally trite—agitato scurrying from the violins and the winds, Taddeo interrupts the lovers’ tête-à-tête, to announce that Pagliaccio has come home, completely enraged and is actually looking for a weapon; he knows everything, and I’m going to hide!

Pagliaccio enters just as Arlecchino escapes through the window, reminding Colombina to lace her husband’s wine with the drug he gave her. Tonight, she tells him, I will be yours, forever, underlined by the cellos playing Silvio’s “rising” theme. Canio’s “menacing” theme from Act 1 is heard in the low strings and winds: In God’s name, the very same words!

Now begins a Minuet in the first violins, but it’s a drunk one, full of hesitations and staggerings. “A man was here with you!” he challenges. Nonsense; are you drunk? Yes, for the past hour. You’re home early. But just in time; does that bother you, dearest wife?

Sorry to get technical here, but it’s dramatically important, so bear with me! His vocal phrase ends on the second beat of the bar, and in E minor. The last beat of the bar (Minuets have three beats in the bar) is silent. That third-beat silence suggests a huge intake of breath, as Pagliaccio, Colombina, and we, the audience, wonder what is to come. The orchestra resumes in the relative major, which is supposed to be a “happier” key than a minor one. But Pagliaccio contradicts that sense of “happiness” by singing a C# above the G major tonality; medieval scholars considered the augmented 4th to be “the devil in music.” Colombina’s defense is initially harmonically confused, but all becomes clear when she says that Taddeo was her dinner partner. He is too terrified to come on stage, but, stutteringly, he protests that she is pura, marked esagerato, while the “curse” theme is heard from the bassoons. Such pious lips could never lie. Laughter from the audience.

Canio is too far wrapped up in his “real” life to believe her, and that menacing theme returns as he demands to know the name of her lover. The drunk Minuet returns as Colombina tries to bring him back to the play, with repeated mentions of his “stage” character: “Pagliaccio!”

He explodes. I’m not Pagliaccio! (Such surging rage from strings and winds!) If my face is white, it is with shame and a desire for revenge. I need blood to wash away that shame. How stupid was I to feel sorry for you, a starving orphan on the side of the road, and to offer you a name and a mad and passionate love. Throughout this outburst, we hear bits of his “menacing” theme from the bassoons and the cellos, but they seem to have softened somewhat. For him, “stage” life has become “real” life.

The audience is stunned: I’m weeping; it’s so real. Cellos play Silvio’s rising theme: he is scared.

In a glorious celebration of the tenor voice, Canio – no longer Pagliaccio – tells his “real” wife that he had hoped, despite his wild infatuation for her, that she would she might reciprocate with kindness, if not with love. Listen to the cello melody which accompanies him! I was happy to make any sacrifice for you and believed more in you than in God. But your soul was consumed with evil. You have neither heart nor soul: your passions consume you. You do not deserve my grief. Wretch, I wish I could crush you under my foot!

Wild applause!

If, Colombina says, you think me so unworthy of you, send me away. So you can run off to your lover? By God (another of those oaths which are littered throughout Leoncavallo’s libretto) you’ll stay, and tell me his name!


Desperately, Colombina tries again, with a reprise of the orchestral Gavotte, to bring Canio back into the play, by changing her story: Taddeo, she assures him, will vouch that her dinner partner was the timid, harmless Arlecchino. But Canio no longer cares about this performance of the Commedia. Why do you defy me? Can’t you understand that I’ll not give you up? Tell me his name!

Her reply begins an ensemble in which she protests her innocence (but there’s Silvio’s rising theme); the villagers wonder if what they’re seeing might not really be “real”; Silvio can barely restrain himself; Beppe tries to go on stage to stop what’s happening, but is held back by Tonio: we must go out there; “Why?”, says Tonio. In a soaring phrase that recalls her passionate protestation of love to Silvio in their Act 1 duet, Colombina (or is it now Nedda?) says her love for her lover is stronger than Canio’s/Pagliaccio’s scorn. His name! Never!

Grabbing a knife from the table, Canio threatens his wife. The women in the audience, sitting in the front rows, try to escape and, in the confusion, Silvio has to fight through them to get to the stage. But it’s too late. Canio has stabbed his wife to death. Then he turns on Silvio and kills him.

“The comedy is finished.” Originally Tonio said that, but early in the opera’s career, the tenor playing Canio pirated it, and now that “tradition” rules. In this opera, where the characters’ confusion between “real” life and “stage” life is so brilliantly shown, surely it’s dramatically more appropriate that the singer of the Prologo should say that line – but to whom is it addressed? To the local Calabrian audience, or to us, the Opera House audience? But a tenor’s ego has supplanted dramatic sense! Regardless of who says the line, the orchestra responds with a triple-fortissimo repetition of Canio’s Ridi, Pagliaccio, (“Laugh, Clown”) phrase from his aria at the end of Act 1, and the curtain falls.

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