Saturday, February 18, 2012

OTF – Pagliacci

This is my Once or Twice a Fortnight post from February 18th, 2012.

To complete our Terrible Twos segment on OperaLively, the second of our pairing of late 19th century verisimo operas, Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo. Like its often paired opera, Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci is also a tale of adultery, deceit, jealousy and it too has a dramatic climax involving the death of a major character, but this time on stage.

Around 1890, when Cavalleria rusticana premiered, Leoncavallo was a little-known composer. After seeing its success, he decided to write a similar opera. It was to be in one act and composed in the verismo style.

Catulle Mendès’ 1887 play entitled La Femme de Tabarin shares many themes with Pagliacci, namely the play-within-the-play and the clown murdering his wife. Today most critics agree that Pagliacci’s libretto was probably inspired by the Mendès play since Leoncavallo was living in Paris at the time of its premiere, and it is likely that he saw the play.

Pagliacci premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on May 21, 1892, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Since 1893, it has usually been performed in a double bill with Cavalleria, a pairing referred to in the operatic world colloquially as "Cav and Pag".

Pagliacci was an instant success and it remains popular today. It contains one of opera's most famous and popular arias, "Recitar! ...  

Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857 - 1919)
Pagliacci (1892)
Drama with one prologue and two acts, libretto by Leoncavallo

Maria Callas - Nedda, a traveling actress (Colombina in the play)
Giuseppe Di Stefano - Canio, head of the company (Pagliaccio in the play)
Tito Gobbi - Tonio, the fool (Taddeo in the play)
Nicola Monti - Peppe, actor (Arlecchino in the play)
Rolando Panerai - Silvio, a villager
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala (Milan), conducted by Tullio Serafin
(This recording of Pagliacci was made by EMI at La Scala, Milan in June 1954, some eight months after theCavalleria I featured on my last OTF)

PRELUDE: Two mimes, Comedy and Tragedy, open a trunk. Tonio, a member of an itinerant touring troupe, emerges. Tonio tells the audience that though they are seeing a play, they should remember that actors, even clowns, are real people who suffer and live lives of agony as well as joy.

ACT I: The curtains rise on a village in Calabria where the town greets the arrival of the players: the leader Canio, his wife Nedda, and two other clowns, Tonio and Beppe. Canio invites everyone to their performance that night, and the villagers invite him to have a drink with them. One man makes a crack about Tonio having a chance to seduce Nedda. Canio, instantly serious, tells him that nothing relating to his wife is a joking matter. 
When he leaves, Nedda is at first frightened that Canio might know something of her activities, but then she is entranced with the birds and sings of their freedom. Tonio listens to her carefree song and, consumed by desire, begs her to love him. She treats him as the clown in their play. When she realizes that he is serious, she turns nasty, eventually striking him. He furiously leaves her just as her lover, a townsperson named Silvio, rushes in. Despite his passionate pleas, Nedda refuses to elope with him immediately. Frustrated, Silvio becomes angry. She finally agrees to leave Canio, and they sing rapturously of their love: 
Tonio, smarting from Nedda’s rejection, returns and sees the lovers. He rushes off to the village to get Canio. The two lovers plan to elope that night, and Canio comes in just as he hears Nedda sing that on that night she will be Silvio’s forever. She does not use his name. Canio screams and chases the younger man who escapes. Tonio laughs at the furious Nedda; when Canio returns, she refuses to give him her lover’s name. She goes off to prepare for the show; Beppe tells Canio that he must prepare as well. 
Thinking of Nedda’s betrayal, Canio sings of his suffering—that he must play the clown although his heart is breaking.

ACT II: The villagers are eager for the standard play: a young woman, married to an older man, is in love with a young man. She plays at being nice to her husband but really seeks the young man, and in the end the husband accepts the situation. The play opens with scenes of Nedda with Tonio and their happy romance. Canio, as the clown, enters just as Nedda sings the exact words he heard her say to her lover an hour or so earlier. It is too much. She desperately tries to keep him in the play, but after two or three more moments, he explodes, telling Nedda that he is serious. The crowd is rapt as he sings, “No, Pagliacci non son.” 
Nedda tries for a few moments to bring Canio back to the play, but all he can do is to demand the name of her lover. She finally explodes, crying that she will never tell him. Blind with rage, he stabs her. Silvio breaks from the crowd; Canio sees him and stabs him. The opera ends with the immortal line, “The comedy is over.”

Our conductor, Tullio Serafin (1878-1968), was one of the great conductors of Italian opera. After studying at the Milan Conservatory at first he was a violinist in the orchestra at La Scala, Milan, then in 1900 at Ferrara began a career as conductor. Engagements followed in Turin and Rome. Through more than half a century he appeared at Covent Garden, La Scala, Colón (Buenos Aires), San Carlo (Naples), Metropolitan Opera (New York), the Rome Opera, Lyric Opera (Chicago) and numerous other opera houses in Italy and abroad. 

His repertoire was vast. He conducted conventional and unconventional operas as well as introducing a variety of new works and worked with numerous famous singers, including BattistiniChaliapinPonselleGigliCallasand Sutherland. His recording career was exhaustive and includes the Verdi Requiem (HMV, 1939) as well as Norma (both Angel/Columbia 1954 and 1960) with Callas. Here he is conducting the William Tell Overture with the Rome Opera orchestra in a rare vinyl recording:

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