FOR a quarter of a century “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci” have been the Castor and Pollux of the operatic theatres of Europe and America. Together they have joined the hunt of venturesome impresarios for that Calydonian boar, success ; together they have lighted the way through seasons of tempestuous stress and storm. Of recent years at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York efforts have been made to divorce them and to find associates for one or the other, since neither is sufficient in time for an evening’s entertainment ; but they refuse to be put asunder as steadfastly as did the twin brothers of Helen and Clytemnestra. There has been no operatic Zeus powerful enough to separate and alternate their existences even for a day; and though blasé critics will continue to rail at the “double bill” as they have done for two decades or more, the two fierce little dramas will “sit shining on the sails” of many a managerial ship and bring it safe to haven for many a year to come.
Twins the operas are in spirit ; twins in their capacity as supreme representatives of verismo; twins in the fitness of their association ; but twins they are not in respect of parentage or age. “Cavalleria rusticana” is two years older than “Pagliacci” and as truly its progenitor as Weber’s operas were the progenitors of Wagner’s. They are the offspring of the same artistic movement, and it was the phenomenal success of Mascagni’s opera which was the spur that drove Leoncavallo to write his. When “Cavalleria rusticana” appeared on the scene, two generations of opera-goers had passed away without experiencing anything like the sensation caused by this opera. They had witnessed the production, indeed, of great masterpieces, which it would be almost sacrilegious to mention in the same breath with Mascagni’s turbulent and torrential tragedy, but these works were the productions of mature masters, from whom things monumental and lasting were expected as a matter of course; men like Wagner and Verdi. The generations had also seen the coming of “Carmen” and gradually opened their minds to an appreciation of its meaning and beauty, while the youthful genius who had created it sank almost unnoticed into his grave ; but they had not seen the advent of a work which almost in a day set the world on fire and raised an unknown musician from penury and obscurity to affluence and fame. In the face of such an experience it was scarcely to be wondered at that judgment was flung to the winds and that the most volatile of musical nations and the staidest alike hailed the young composer as the successor of Verdi, the regenerator of operatic Italy, and the pioneer of a new school which should revitalize opera and make unnecessary the hopeless task of trying to work along the lines laid down by Wagner.
And this opera was the outcome of a competition based on the frankest kind of commercialism one of those “occasionals” from which we have been taught to believe we ought never to expect anything of ideal and lasting merit. “Pagliacci” was, in a way, a fruit of the same competition. Three years before “Cavalleria rusticana” had started the universal conflagration Ruggiero Leoncavallo, who at sixteen years of age had won his diploma at the Naples Conservatory and received the degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Bologna at twenty, had read his dramatic poem “I Medici” to the publisher Ricordi and been commissioned to set it to music. For this work he was to receive 2400 francs. He completed the composition within a year, but there was no contract that the opera should be performed, and this hoped-for consummation did not follow. Then came Mascagni’s triumph, and Leoncavallo, who had been obliged meanwhile to return to the routine work of an operatic repétiteur, lost patience. Satisfied that Ricordi would never do anything more for him, and become desperate, he shut himself in his room to attempt “one more work” as he said in an autobiographical sketch which appeared in “La Reforme,” a journal published in Alexandria. In five months he had written the book and music of “Pagliacci,” which was accepted for publication and production by Sonzogno, Ricordi’s business rival, after a single reading of the poem. Maurel, whose friendship Leoncavallo had made while coaching opera singers in Paris, used his influence in favor of the opera, offered to create the part of Tonio, and did so at the first performance of the opera at the Teatro dal Verme, Milan, on May 17, 1892.
Leoncavallo’s opera turns on a tragical ending to a comedy which is incorporated in the play. The comedy is a familiar one among the strolling players who perform at village fairs in Italy, in which Colombina, Pagliaccio, and Arlecchino (respectively the Columbine, Clown, and Harlequin of our panto-mime) take part. Pagliaccio is husband to Colombina and Arlecchino is her lover, who hoodwinks Pagliaccio. There is a fourth character, Taddeo, a servant, who makes foolish love to Columbina and, mingling imbecile stupidity with maliciousness, de-lights in the domestic discord which he helps to foment. The first act of the opera may be looked upon as an induction to the conventional comedy which comes to an unconventional and tragic end through the fact that the Clown (Canio) is in real life the husband of Columbine (Nedda) and is murderously jealous of her ; wherefore, forgetting himself in a mad rage, he kills her and her lover in the midst of the mimic scene. The lover, however, is not the Harlequin, of the comedy, but one of the spectators whom Canio had vainly sought to identify, but who is unconsciously betrayed by his mistress in her death agony. The Taddeo of the comedy is the clown of the company, who in real life entertains a passion for Nedda, which is repulsed, whereupon he also carries his part into actuality and betrays Nedda’s secret to Canio. It is in the ingenious interweaving of these threads the weft of reality with the warp of simulation that the chief dramatic value of Leoncavallo’s opera lies.
Actual murder by a man while apparently playing a part in a drama is older as a dramatic motif than “Pagliacci,” and Leoncavallo’s employment of it gave rise to an interesting controversy and a still more interesting revelation in the early days of the opera. Old theatre-goers in England and America remember the device as it was employed in Dennery’s “Pail-laisse,” known on the English stage as “Belphegor, the Mountebank.” In 1874 Paul Ferrier produced a play entitled “Tabarin,” in which Coquelin appeared at the Théâtre Francais. Thirteen years later Catulle Mendès brought out another play called “La Femme de Tabarin,” for which Chabrier wrote the incidental music. The critics were prompt in charging Mendès with having plagiarized Ferrier, and the former defended himself on the ground that the incident which he had employed, of actual murder in a dramatic performance, was historical and had often been used. This, however, did not prevent him from bringing an accusation of theft against Leoncavallo when “Pagliacci” was announced for production in French at Brussels and of beginning legal proceedings against the composer and his publisher on that score. The controversy which followed showed very plainly that Mendès did not have a leg to stand upon either in law or equity, and he withdrew his suit and made a hand-some amende in a letter to the editor of “Le Figaro.” Before this was done, however, Signor Leoncavallo wrote a letter to his publisher, which not only established that the incident in question was based upon fact but directed attention to a dramatic use of the motif in a Spanish play written thirty-five years before the occurrence which was in the mind of Leoncavallo. The letter was as follows :
Lugano, Sept. 3, 1894.
Dear Signor Sonzogno.
I have read Catulle Mendès’s two letters. M. Mendès goes pretty far in declaring a priori that “Pagliacci” is an imitation of his “Femme de Tabarin.” I had not known this book, and only know it now through the accounts given in the daily papers. You will remember that at the time of the first performance of “Pagliacci” at Milan in 1892 several critics accused me of having taken the subject of my opera from the “Drama Nuevo” of the well known Spanish writer, Estebanez. What would M. Mendès say if he were accused of having taken the plot of “La Femme de Tabarin” from the “Drama Nuevo,” which dates back to 1830 or 1840? As a fact, a husband, a comedian, kills in the last scene the lover of his wife before her eyes while he only appears to play his part in the piece.
It is absolutely true that I knew at that time no more of the “Drama Nuevo” than I know now of “La Femme de Tabarin.” I saw the first mentioned work in Rome represented by Novelli six months after Pagliacci’s ” first production in Milan. In my childhood, while my father was judge at Montalto, in Calabria (the scene of the opera’s plot), a jealous player killed his wife after the performance. This event made a deep and lasting impression on my childish mind, the more since my father was the judge at the criminal’s trial ; and later, when I took up dramatic work, I used this episode for a drama. I left the frame of the piece as I saw it, and it can be seen now at the Festival of Madonna della Serra, at Montalto. The clowns arrive a week or ten days before the festival, which takes place on August 15, to put up their tents and booths in the open space which reaches from the church toward the fields. I have not even invented the coming of the peasants from Santo Benedetto, a neighboring village, during the chorale.
What I write now I have mentioned so often in Germany and other parts that several opera houses, notably that of Berlin, had printed on their bills “Scene of the true event.” After all this, M. Mendès insisted on his claim, which means that he does not believe my words. Had I used M. Mendès’s ideas I would not have hesitated to open correspondence with him before the first representation, as I have done now with a well known writer who has a subject that I wish to use for a future work. “Pagliacci” is my own, entirely my own. If in this opera, a scene reminds one of M. Mendès’s book, it only proves that we both had the same idea which Estebanez had before us. On my honor and conscience I assure you that I have read but two of M. Mendès’s books in my life “Zo Hur” and “La Première Maitresse.” When I read at Marienbad a little while ago the newspaper notices on the production of “La Femme de Tabarin” I even wrote to you, dear Signor Sonzogno, thinking this was an imitation of “Pagliacci.” This assertion will suffice, coming from an honorable man, to prove my loyalty. If not, then I will place my undoubted rights under the protection of the law, and furnish incontestable proof of what I have stated here.
I have the honor, etc., etc.
At various times and in various manners, by letters and in newspaper interviews, Leoncavallo reiterated the statement that the incident which he had witnessed as a boy in his father’s courtroom had suggested his drama. The chief actor in the incident, he said, was still living. After conviction he was asked if he felt penitent. The rough voice which rang through the room years before still echoed in Leoncavallo’s ears : “I repent me of nothing ! On the contrary, if I had it to do over again I’d do it again !” (Non mi pento del delitto! Tutt altro. Se dovessi ricominciare, ricomincerei !) He was sentenced to imprisonment and after the expiration of his term took service in a little Calabrian town with Baroness Sproniere. If Mendès had prosecuted his action, “poor Alessandro” was ready to appear as a witness and tell the story which Leoncavallo had dramatized.
I have never seen “La Femme de Tabarin” and must rely on Mr. Philip Hale, fecund fountain of informal information, for an outline of the play which “Pagliacci” called back into public notice : Francis-quine, the wife of Tabarin, irons her petticoats in the players’ booth. A musketeer saunters along, stops and makes love to her. She listens greedily. Tabarin enters just after she has made an appointment with the man. Tabarin is drunk drunker than usual. He adores his wife ; he falls at her feet ; he entreats her ; he threatens her. Meanwhile the crowd gathers to see the “parade.” Tabarin mounts the platform and tells openly of his jealousy. He calls his wife ; she does not answer. He opens the curtain behind him ; then he sees her in the arms of the musketeer. Tabarin snatches up a sword, stabs his wife in the breast and comes back to the stage with starting eyes and hoarse voice. The crowd marvels at the passion of his play. Francisquine, bloody, drags herself along the boards. She chokes ; she cannot speak. Tabarin, mad with despair, gives her the sword, begs her to kill him. She seizes the sword, raises herself, hiccoughs, gasps out the word “Canaille,” and dies before she can strike.
Paul Ferrier and Emanuel Pessard produced a grand opera in two acts entitled ” Tabarin” in Paris in 1885 ; Alboiz and André a comic opera with the same title, music by Georges Bousquet, in 1852. Gilles and Furpilles brought out an operetta called “Tabarin Duelliste,” with music by Léon Pillaut, in 1866. The works seem to have had only the name of the hero in common. Their stories bear no likeness to those of “La Femme de Tabarin” or “Pagliacci.” The Spanish play, “Drama Nuevo,” by Estebanez, was adapted for performance in English by Mr. W. D. Howells under the title “Yorick’s Love.” The translation was made for Mr. Lawrence Barrett and was never published in book form. If it had the dénouement suggested in Leoncavallo’s letter to Sonzogno, the fact has escaped the memory of Mr. Howells, who, in answer to a letter of inquiry which I sent him, wrote : “So far as I can remember there was no likeness between `Yorick’s Love’ and `Pagliacci.’ But when I made my version I had not seen or heard `Pagliacci.”‘
The title of Leoncavallo’s opera is, “Pagliacci,” not “I Pagliacci” as it frequently appears in books and newspapers. When the opera was brought out in the vernacular, Mr. Frederick E. Weatherly, who made the English adaptation, called the play and the character assumed by Canio in the comedy “Punchinello.” This evoked an interesting comment from Mr. Hale : “`Pagliacci’ is the plural of Pagliaccio, which does not mean and never did mean Punchinello. What is a Pagliaccio ? A type long known to the Italians, and familiar to the French as Paillasse. The Pagliaccio visited Paris first in 1570. He was clothed in white and wore big buttons. Later, he wore a suit of bedtick, with white and blue checks, the coarse mattress cloth of the period. Hence his name. The word that meant straw was afterward used for mattress which was stuffed with straw and then for the buffoon, who wore the mattress cloth suit. In France the Paillasse, as I have said, was the same as Pagliaccio. Sometimes he wore a red checked suit, but the genuine one was known by the colors, white and blue. He wore blue stockings, short breeches puffing out à la blouse, a belted blouse and a black, close-fitting cap. This buffoon was seen at shows of strolling mountebanks. He stood out-side the booth and by his jests and antics and grim-aces strove to attract the attention of the people, and he told them of the wonders performed by acrobats within, of the freaks exhibited. Many of his jests are preserved. They are often in dialogue with the proprietor and are generally of vile in-decency. The lowest of the strollers, he was abused by them. The Italian Pagliaccio is a species of clown, and Punchinello was never a mere buffoon. The Punch of the puppet-show is a bastard descendant of the latter, but the original type is still seen in Naples, where he wears a white costume and a black mask. The original type was not necessarily humpbacked. Punchinello is a shrewd fellow, intellectual, yet in touch with the people, cynical ; not hesitating at murder if he can make by it ; at the same time a local satirist, a dealer in gags and quips. Pagliacci is perhaps best translated by `clowns’ ; but the latter word must not be taken in its restricted circus sense. These strolling clowns are pantomimists, singers, comedians.”
At the first performance of “Pagliacci” in Milan the cast was as follows : Canio, Geraud ; Tonio, Maurel ; Silvio, Ancona ; Peppe, Daddi ; Nedda, Mme. Stehle. The first performance in America was by the Hinrichs Grand Opera Company, at the Grand Opera House, New York, on June 15, 1893 ; Selma Kronold was the Nedda, Montegriffo the Canio, and Campanari the Tondo. The opera was incorporated in the Metropolitan repertory in the season of 1893-Rinuccini’s “Dafne,” which was written 300 years ago and more, begins with a prologue which was spoken in the character of the poet Ovid. Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” also begins with a prologue, but it is spoken by one of the people of the play ; whether in his character as Tonio of the tragedy or Pagliaccio of the comedy there is no telling. He speaks the sentiments of the one and wears the motley of the other. Text and music, however, are ingeniously contrived to serve as an index to the purposes of the poet and the method and material of the composer. In his speech the prologue tells us that the author of the play is fond of the ancient custom of such an introduction, but not of the old purpose. He does not employ it for the purpose of proclaiming that the tears and passions of the actors are but simulated and false. No ! He wishes to let us know that his play is drawn from life as it is that it is true. It welled up within him when memories of the past sang in his heart and was written down to show us that actors are human beings like unto ourselves.
An unnecessary preachment, and if listened to with a critical disposition rather an impertinence, as calculated to rob us of the pleasure of illusion which it is the province of the drama to give. Closely analyzed, Tonio’s speech is very much of a piece with the prologue which Bully Bottom wanted for the play of “Pyramus” in Shakespeare’s comedy. We are asked to see a play. In this play there is another play. In this other play one of the actors plays at cross-purposes with the author – forgets his lines and himself altogether and becomes in reality the man that he seems to be in the first play.
The prologue deliberately aims to deprive us of the thrill of surprise at the unexpected dénouement, simply that he may tell us what we already know as well as he, that an actor is a human being.
Plainly then, from a didactic point of view, this prologue is a gratuitous impertinence. Not so its music. Structurally, it is little more than a loose-jointed pot-pourri ; but it serves the purpose of a thematic catalogue to the chief melodic incidents of the play which is to follow. In this it bears a faint resemblance to the introduction to Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet” symphony. It begins with an energetic figure, which is immediately followed by an upward scale-passage with a saucy flourish at the end not unlike the crack of a whiplash.
It helps admirably to picture the bustling activity of the festa into which we are soon to be precipitated.
The bits of melody which are now introduced might all be labelled in the Wolzogen-Wagner manner with reference to the play’s peoples and their passions if it were worth while to do so, or if their beauty and eloquence were not sufficient unto themselves. First we have the phrase in which Canio will tell us how a clown’s heart must seem merry and make laughter though it be breaking.
Next the phrase from the love music of Nedda and Silvio.
The bustling music returns, develops great energy, then pauses, hesitates, and makes way for Tonio, who, putting his head through the curtain, politely asks permission of the audience, steps forward and delivers his homily, which is alternately declamatory and broadly melodious. One of his melodies later becomes the theme of the between-acts music, which separates the supposedly real life of the strolling players from the comedy which they present to the mimic audience.
At last Tonio calls upon his fellow mountebanks to begin their play. The curtain rises. We are in the midst of a rural celebration of the Feast of the Assumption on the outskirts of a village in Calabria. A perambulant theatre has been set up among the trees and the strolling actors are arriving, accompanied by a crowd of villagers, who shout greetings to Clown, Columbine, and Harlequin. Nedda arrives in a cart drawn by a donkey led by Beppe. Canio in character invites the crowd to come to the show at 7 o’clock (ventitre ore). There they shall be regaled with a sight of the domestic troubles of Pagliaccio and see the fat mischief-maker tremble. Tonio wants to help Nedda out of the cart, but Canio interferes and lifts her down himself ; whereupon the women and boys twit Tonio. Canio and Beppe wet their whistles at the tavern, but Tonio remains behind on the plea that he must curry the donkey. The hospitable villager playfully suggests that it is Tonio’s purpose to make love to Nedda. Canio, half in earnest, half in jest, points out the difference between real life and the stage. In the play, if he catches a lover with his wife, he flies into a mock passion, preaches a sermon, and takes a drubbing from the swain to the amusement of the audience. But there would be a different ending to the story were Nedda actually to deceive him. Let Tonio beware ! Does he doubt Nedda’s fidelity? Not at all. He loves her and seals his assurance with a kiss. Then off to the tavern.
Hark to the bagpipes ! Huzza, here come the zampognari ! Drone pipes droning and chaunters skirling as well as they can skirl in Italian !
Now we have people and pipers on the stage and there’s a bell in the steeple ringing for vespers. Therefore a chorus. Not that we have anything to say that concerns the story in any way. “Din, don !” That would suffice, but if you must have more : “Let’s to church. Din, don. All’s right with love and the sunset. Din, don ! But mamma Ms her eye on the young folk and their inclination for kissing. Din, don ! ” Bells and pipes are echoed by the singers.
Her husband is gone to the tavern for refreshment and Nedda is left alone. There is a little trouble in her mind caused by the fierceness of Canio’s voice and looks. Does he suspect? But why yield to such fancies and fears? How beautiful the mid-August sun is ! Her hopes and longings find expression in the Ballatella a waltz tune with twitter of birds and rustle of leaves for accompaniment. Pretty birds, where are you going? What is it you say? Mother knew your song and used once to tell it to her babe. How your wings flash through the ether ! Heedless of cloud and tempest, on, on, past the stars, and still on ! Her wishes take flight with the feathered songsters, but Tonio brings her rudely to earth. He pleads for a return of the love which he says he bears her, but she bids him postpone his protestations till he can make them in the play. He grows desperately urgent and attempts to rape a kiss. She cuts him across the face with a donkey whip, and he goes away blaspheming and swearing vengeance.
Then Silvio comes Silvio, the villager, who loves her and who has her heart. She fears he will be discovered, but he bids her be at peace ; he had left Canio drinking at the tavern. She tells him of the scene with Tonio and warns him, but he laughs at her fears. Then he pleads with her. She does not love her husband ; she is weary of the wandering life which she is forced to lead; if her love is true let her fly with him to happiness. No. ‘Tis folly, madness ; her heart is his, but he must not tempt her to its destruction. Tonio slinks in and plays eavesdropper. He hears the mutual protestations of the lovers, hears Nedda yield to Silvio’s wild pleadings, sees them locked in each other’s arms, and hurries off to fetch Canio. Canio comes, but not in time to see the man who had climbed over the wall, yet in time to hear Nedda’s word of parting : A stanotte e per sempre tua saro “Tonight, and forever, I am yours !” He throws Nedda aside and gives chase after the fugitive, but is baffled. He demands to be told the name of her lover. Nedda refuses to answer. He rushes upon her with dagger drawn, but Beppe intercepts and disarms him. There is haste now ; the villagers are already gathering for the play. Tonio insinuates his wicked advice Let us dissemble; the gallant may be caught at the play. The others go out to prepare for their labors. Canio staggers toward the theatre. He must act the merry fool, though his heart be torn ! Why not ? What is he? A man ? No ; a clown ! On with the motley ! The public must be amused. What though Harlequin steals his Columbine ? Laugh, Pagliaccio, though thy heart break !
The between-acts music is retrospective ; it comments on the tragic emotions, the pathos foretold in the prologue. Act II brings the comedy which is to have a realistic and bloody ending. The villagers gather and struggle for places in front of the booth. Among them is Silvio, to whom Nedda speaks a word of warning as she passes him while collecting the admission fees. He reminds her of the assignation ; she will be there. The comedy begins to the music of a graceful minuet.
Columbine is waiting for Harlequin. Taddeo is at the market buying the supper for the mimic lovers. Harlequin sings his serenade under the window : “O, Colombina, il tenero fido Arlecchin” a pretty measure ! Taddeo enters and pours out his admiration for Colombina in an exaggerated cadenza as he offers her his basket of purchases. The audience shows enjoyment of the sport. Taddeo makes love to Colombina and Harlequin, entering by the window, lifts him up by the ears from the floor where he is kneeling and kicks him out of the room. What fun ! The mimic lovers sit at table and discuss the supper and their love. Taddeo enters in mock alarm to tell of the coming of Pagliaccio. Harlequin decamps, but leaves a philtre in the hands of Columbine to be poured into her husband’s wine. At the window Columbine calls after him : A stanotte e per sempre io saro tua ! At this moment Canio enters in the character of Pagliaccio. He hears again the words which Nedda had called after the fleeing Silvio, and for a moment is startled out of his character. But he collects himself and begins to play his part. “A man has been here ! ” ” You’ve been drinking !” The dialogue of the comedy continues, but ever and anon with difficulty on the part of Pagliaccio, who begins to put a sinister inflection into his words. Taddeo is dragged from the cup-board in which he had taken hiding. He, too, puts color of verity into his lines, especially when he prates about the purity of Columbine. Canio loses control of himself more and more. “Pagliaccio no more, but a man a man seeking vengeance. The name of your lover !” The audience is moved by his intensity. Silvio betrays anxiety. Canio rages on. “The name, the name !” The mimic audience shouts, “Bravo !” Nedda : if he doubts her she will go. “No, by God ! You’ll remain and tell me the name of your lover !” With a great effort Nedda forces herself to remain in character. The music, whose tripping dance measures have given way to sinister mutterings in keeping with Canio’s mad out-bursts, as the mimic play ever and anon threatens to leave its grooves and plunge into the tragic vortex of reality, changes to a gavotte.
Columbine explains : she had no idea her husband could put on so tragical a mask. It is only harmless Harlequin who has been her companion.
“The name ! The name !! THE NAME ! ! !” Nedda sees catastrophe approaching and throws her character to the winds. She shrieks out a defiant “No !” and attempts to escape from the mimic stage. Silvio starts up with dagger drawn. The spectators rise in confusion and cry “Stop him !” Canio seizes Nedda and plunges his knife into her : “Take that ! And that ! With thy dying gasps thou’lt tell me !” Woful intuition ! Dying, Nedda calls : “Help, Silvio !” Silvio rushes forward and receives Canio’s knife in his heart. “Gesumaria !” shriek the women. Men throw themselves upon Canio. He stands for a moment in a stupor, drops his knife and speaks the words : “The comedy is ended.” “Ridi Pagliaccio !” shrieks the orchestra as the curtain falls.
“Plaudite, amici,” said Beethoven on his death bed, “la commedia finita est !” And there is a tradition that these, too, were the last words of the arch-jester Rabelais. “When ‘Pagliacci’ was first sung here (in Boston), by the Tavary company,” says Mr. Philip Hale, “Tonio pointed to the dead bodies and uttered the sentence in a mocking way. And there is a report that such was Leoncavallo’s original intention. As the Tonio began the piece in explanation so he should end it. But the tenor (de Lucia) insisted that he should speak the line. I do not believe the story. (1) As Maurel was the original Tonio and the tenor was comparatively unknown, it is doubtful whether Maurel, of all men, would have allowed of the loss of a fat line. (2) As Canio is chief of the company it is eminently proper that he should make the announcement to the crowd. (3) The ghastly irony is accentuated by the speech when it comes from Canio’s mouth.”