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Monday, July 31, 2006

“I Pagliacci” = Perfect Opera?

I read quite a few books over the course of a year, almost none of them short stories. I know that it takes a special writer to craft a compelling story within a confined number of pages, and many authors enjoy wide acclaim along these lines. But if a story is one that I'm truly enjoying, I’d prefer to see it longer rather than shorter—which flies in the face of the short-story concept.

The same might be said for operas, although longer isn’t necessarily better, even for genius composers like Verdi. The four-act version of “Don Carlo” is fifty musical-score pages longer than I’d prefer, and it was originally written for five acts!

Some early Donizetti operas are two acts long—most of them comedies written for Naples—and examples of three-act operas fairly dominate the repertoire. As with today’s audiences, 19th-century opera goers wanted their money’s worth. Also, opera houses in Paris, Vienna, Budapest and elsewhere catered to audiences whose more affluent members wished to be seen in their finery. Oftentimes it was more of a social occasion than a musical one. How could a woman make her rivals jealous, wearing the latest fashions, if the opera lasted less than several hours—plus intermissions?

Only a few short operas have been written by major composers. Fewer still these days are performed with any sort of regularity. Part of the problem may rest with the “money’s worth” issue. Other than the employees who are hourly wage-earners, it is arguably just as expensive to put on a 45-minute piece as it is to mount a four-hour one. The penchant for pairing two short operas in an evening, thereby justifying those lofty ticket prices, clearly doubles that cost. One cannot expect to share scenery or costumes from one production to another—unless you're doing one of those ultra-modern ones with none of either—and it’s the rare twin-bill that can afford the luxury of double-booking its lead singers, mainly because the proper voice type for Opera A doesn’t necessarily fit the requirements of Opera B.

One short opera, however, stands head and shoulders above all the rest. It is among the most performed pieces of any length, boasting marvelous tunes, high drama, and a storyline that is—rare for opera—virtually timeless. Despite its brevity this work leaves its audiences sated, never wanting more but simply making one wish to see it again and again.

In a career that stretched from 1892 until his death in 1919, Ruggero Leoncavallo composed nine operas and 10 operettas. Interestingly enough, four of those pieces—three operettas plus the opera “Edipo Re” (Oedipus the King)—premiered after he’d already passed on. Now that’s what I call having power from the grave!

The story of success and failure from Leoncavallo’s musical career is also the story of rivalries—Wagnerian-style opera versus verismo, Leoncavallo versus Puccini, Ricordi versus Sonzogno (see the second earlier post, listed below). These latter two gentlemen represented the primary musical publishing houses in Italy, giants in their field some 20 years either side of the turn of the twentieth century. Ricordi published Verdi’s works, and the family-owned business made a fortune because of its rights to reprint musical scores for sale to opera houses and the public. Sonzogno elected to institute an opera competition to bolster access to up-and-coming composers, a contest that continues even today.

Leoncavallo studied music at the Naples Conservatory under Lauro Rossi—whose life and works will be examined here as one of the 88 Composers—before attending Bologna University and graduating with a degree in literature. Those two skills combined to serve him well, as Leoncavallo acted as his own librettist for all of his operatic works. He actually began his professional career in this role, working for Ricordi as a house librettist—“punching up” material authored by others much the same way the film industry hires people to improve existing scripts. But this relationship soured when Ricordi hired and then fired him as the librettist for Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” (whose ultimate credit went to Luigi Illica and Domenico Oliva), and then took the option on several of Leoncavallo’s operas but neither published nor produced them.

The composer decided that his future lay elsewhere, so he shut himself away for a number of months and emerged with a two-scene opera whose story line was “ripped from the headlines,” so to speak—cribbed from one of his father’s law cases. He took the manuscript to Sonzogno, who immediately recognized its greatness and arranged a public performance. None other than conductor Arturo Toscanini held the baton at Teatro del Verme in Milan where, on May 21, 1892, the opera “I Pagliacci” had its premiere.

Roughly translated into English as “The Clowns,” the main characters of “Pagliacci” are more like wandering minstrels, journeying by horse-drawn wagon from town to town throughout Italy where they put on shows for the locals, pass the hat, and then move on. Despite the brevity of the libretto, the characters are well drawn and behave in a true-to-life manner. Canio (tenor) is the leader of the group, with a big public ego that belies the insecurity in his relationship with his common-law wife and performing partner, Nedda (soprano). The other two members of the troupe include Beppe (tenor)—who fulfills the stage role as comic relief—and Tonio (baritone), the jester-like individual generally responsible for all the heavy lifting. One other character remains. Silvio (baritone) is Nedda’s erstwhile lover, whose expectation to spirit her away from Canio that very evening provokes the behind-the-scenes impetus that ends in tragedy.

Many librettists feel compelled to provide their audiences with a well-marked roadmap, noting every stop along the way from A to Z. Lorenzo da Ponte, who penned the lyrics for Mozart’s three most popular Italian operas—“Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Don Giovanni”—crammed his recitative with every possible move-’em-forward literary device. Even the parts that are designed to confuse or confound the other characters on stage clearly point the way for the spectators. Leoncavallo is much more covert—it’s difficult for me to name a specific instance, but the overall subtlety of the storyline rings through.

By far the most well-known music from “I Pagliacci” is “Vesta la giubba,” sung perhaps more often than any other tenor aria in opera. A version by Enrico Caruso became the first record to sell more than a million copies. Leoncavallo’s melancholy air, coupled with the sad lyrics that juxtapose the role of the clown—working hard to be funny while entertaining his audiences—with the depression the character is feeling over his relationship with Nedda, strikes a mood that resonates well with audiences the world over.

What prompted this essay was my purchase of a Metropolitan Opera DVD of this opera, recorded in 1994. My wife had taped it during its public television broadcast, and we’d watched it several times since then. Dwayne Croft is Silvio, Juan Pons is Tonio, Teresa Stratas is Nedda and Luciano Pavarotti is Canio. As with most Met DVDs produced over the past decade the camera work here is top-rate, with close-ups on the singers where appropriate, and medium-long shots the rest of the time to give the viewer (a) a fair sense of scale and (b) the ability to enjoy the reactions of the other characters. Because the set is small—nearly everything takes place within a dozen or so feet of the lip of the stage—the intimacy of the surroundings do well to match the intimacy of the action.

More and more operas are available on DVD. Our local library system has started to build up its collection—including “Rigoletto” with Placido Domingo, “Aida” with Luciano Pavarotti, “La Boheme” with Mirella Freni, “Madama Butterfly” with Raina Kabaivanska, “L’Africaine” with Shirley Verrett” and a Harnoncourt-conducted “Don Giovanni”—and Netflix offers close to a hundred selections, including such esoteric choices as Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini,” Handel’s “Xerxes” and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”

One of the more compelling reasons to own operas on DVD is to watch staged performances of things you’re not likely to see live. I despair of ever seeing “Les Huguenots” produced here in the States anytime during my remaining life—unless I fund the production myself; not bloody likely—but I can view it anytime I choose on my TV. But another reason involves capturing great performances for posterity, or gaining access to genius in artistry.

Leoncavallo was truly inspired when he composed the story and the music to “I Pagliacci.” Perfection? Pretty darned close for my taste, anyway.

Opera on DVD makes sense. It's just a technology-historical accident that most people regard CD (vinyl, 78s) as being where it's at and DVD a junior and unimportant upstart. If one could forget 100 years of history there would be no rationale to preferring audio-only to audio-and-video.

I prefer Cav to Pag...

1) There are some great short operas. I'm a big fan of Mozart and Salieri, by Rimsky-Korsakov. About as short as they come, but it's a wonderful operatic version of "Amadeus".

2) HAVE YOU HEARD? I'm pretty darned excited about those recordings. What are you most looking forward to? Give us a post!
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