Pagliacci is the Italian word for clowns, a decidedly unique subject for grand opera. Novelty is one of the characteristics of this work. It has already achieved fame, altho but a child in age and size, being only a few years old and two acts long. Leoncavallo, the composer and librettist, has since written another opera, ” I Medici,” which has found favor in Europe, but is still unheard in America.
Pagliacci is startling and intense from the entrance of the Prologue to the clown’s last word, “finita.” The music abounds in surprises, and altho Leoncavallo has been charged with some plagiarism, his work but reflects the influence of such recent composers as Wagner and Mascagni.
The opening orchestral measures are of peculiar rhythm, and suggest the spasmodic movement of puppets on a string; but this implies no lack of dignity to the composition. There are passages that recall the ” Flying Dutchman, ” and Leoncavallo adopts the Wagnerian method of handling his themes ; in other words, each one has a meaning that is adhered to throughout the opera. In this introduction we hear the warm and sunny love-music, followed by the somber theme of revenge like a shadow after light. Then the puppet-music is hastily resumed, to remind us that a clown must laugh and dance, however bitter his feelings.
During the overture a painted and grotesque personage steps before the curtain and announces himself as the Prologue. This innovation has prompted some wag to remark that ” the opera commences before it begins! ” Mascagni, in his Cavalleria Rusticana,” was the first to present an unconventional opening, by having a serenade behind the curtain, but Leoncavallo has out-done his rival by having a prologue in front of the curtain. He tells us that the play is taken from life, and that in spite of their motley and tinsel the actors have human hearts. This satisfying song, with its appealing melody and large, resounding accompaniment, has never yet failed to arouse an encore. With a final signal for the play to begin, the Prologue skips out as the curtain goes up.
The scene represents an Italian village gaily decorated for the ” Feast of the Assumption,” an annual fête that lasts a week. We see at one side a rough mimic theater, with stage and curtain, a temporary structure erected for a troupe of players who are just entering the town. There are shouting and laughter behind the scenes, sounds of a discordant trumpet and a terrible drum, and soon the villagers enter, vociferously greeting and surrounding a donkey-cart in which are the players. t is a meager troupe, consisting of Canio, the master, Nedda, his wife, Beppo, the harlequin, and Tonio, the fool. They wear fantastic costumes. Canio beats his big drum, while Nedda scatters play-bills, and the villagers think the troupe quite wonderful. They are welcomed with an impulsive sweeping chorus that seems to disregard all precedent in the matter of keys. These peasants apparently sing in an ungoverned, unrestrained way of their own; but as an Italian’s tattered costume is always picturesque, so is this artless music most graceful and charming. Canio bows grotesquely on all sides, and again thumps his drum to make the people listen as he tells them that at seven o’clock the play will begin —
“You all are invited, And will be delighted As you witness the woes of poor Punchinello, Who revenges himself on a rascally fellow.”
Canio’s professional music, such as the foregoing speech, is made admirably artificial, thin and cheap as tissue paper, with uncertain accompaniment and flimsy melodies.
When the excitement has subsided, Tonio, the fool, offers to lift Nedda from the cart, but Canio boxes his ears and helps his own wife down. The people laugh at Tonio’s discomfort, and he goes off grumbling. This pantomime action and the succeeding bit of dialog are accompanied by a rollicking, hurdy-gurdy sort of motif in the orchestra. A villager invites the players to a drink in the tavern. Canio and Beppo accept, and they call Tonio to come along, but he replies from behind the mimic theater, ” I am cleaning the donkey, and can’t come.” The villager laughingly suggests that Tonio is only waiting for a chance to court Nedda. Canio takes this joke rather seriously, and sings an earnest cantabile to the effect that such a game would be dangerous : ” On the stage, when I find her with a lover I make a funny speech and every one applauds.; but in lifebelieve me, it would end differently.” This last phrase is adapted to the dismal, menacing theme of revenge that was started like a germ in the overture. it is still deeply buried among the instruments, but its growth is steady from the beginning of the opera to the end. Canio closes his song by assuring all that there is no ground for suspicion. He embraces Nedda, and declares that he loves and respects her. The hurgy-gurdy music is resumed, and distant bagpipes are heard,noises peculiar to a village fête. The chorus sing with much good humor, and are accompanied by a charming violin obligato. Then comes the Bell Chorus, so named because the church bell calls them to vespers. ” Prayers first, and then the play! ” exclaim the young people as they go out. The delightful turns and curves of this bell-song are continued until quite in the distance.
Nedda is left alone, and the orchestra, like a merciless conscience, repeats to her Canio’s threatening theme. She has a secret that causes her to tremble as she re-calls her husband’s dark looks and words; but her fears are momentary, for the day is bright and so is her heart. She sings to the sunshine and the birds in the sky. A gay tremolo of the stringed instruments seems to fill the air with feathered songsters, and they remind Nedda of a little ballad her mother used to croon. This popular ballatella is generally referred to as the Bird Song. There is a busy, buzzing string accompaniment, and the melody is a gentle, legato waltz movement. The last notes are descriptive of a bird’s flight ” away, away ! ” so high that the tone seems to soar out of sound as a bird out of sight.
Nedda turns around, and is surprised to find Tonio listening with rapt adoration. He is only a jester, and quite ridiculous to look upon ; but he nevertheless loves Nedda, and tells her so. In this aria, Tonio reveals a depth of feeling that is in touching contrast to his painted face and comical clothes. Nedda laughs uproariously at his confession, and with heartless sarcasm she quotes the scherzando music of the prospective play-scene, and says he must save his fine love-making for the stage. In vain Tonio pleads and falls on his knees. She threatens to call her husband, and finally snatching up a whip, gives Tonio a smart blow on the face. His love is turned to hatred, and he vows vengeance for this insult. He is very much in earnest, and indeed the composer has given him quite a fine vengeance-theme, all his own. t is heard groveling and growling among the bass instruments, like some disturbed animal. Tonio goes off with frowns and threats, but Nedda forgets these in the joy of seeing Silvio. As he cautiously enters, the orchestra announces in the plainest musical phrases that this newcomer is the lover. That theme amoroso is unmistakable even had we not been introduced to it in the prologue. Throughout this love-scene it is the leading spirit, sporting around from treble to bass, now in the orchestra, then in the voice ; sometimes veiled in a minor key or suppressed by top-heavy chords; again, it will start to materialize but at once disappear, or when most unexpected will push itself forward with impish delight.
The witchery of this music undermines fear and caution. The lovers do not notice Tonio’s leering face as he overhears their vows and then goes off to bring Canio ; nor do they hear the stealthy approach of Tonio’s revenge in the orchestra. Nedda agrees to elope with Silvio, “to forget the past and love forever! He has climbed the wall and sings these farewell words with Nedda, just in time for Canio to hear them. The husband rushes forward with a cry of rage, but he fails to recognize the lover. Nedda has warned Silvio to flee, and Canio scales the wall in pursuit. She is left for a moment with Tonio, who gloats over his revenge. With bitter irony Nedda cries ” Bravo ! ” to his success. She calls him a coward and. other terrible names, but the despised jester only shrugs his shoulders.
When Canio returns from his futile chase, he grasps Nedda, tortures her and threatens her, but she will not tell her lover’s name. He declares she shall die, and with these words that bitter revenge-theme for the first time blossoms out in the voice part. It is sung and shouted by the maddened Canio, while the director’s baton swings over the orchestra like a reaper’s sickle, gathering in this full-grown theme. Canio draws his dagger, but is forcibly restrained by Beppo, who tries to reason with his master. ” t is time for the play to begin. The people pay their money and must be entertained.” Nedda is told to go and dress for her part, while Canio is advised to restrain his anger until after the play. He allows himself to be persuaded. The others go off to make ready, and he too must soon don the paint and powder. He looks sadly at the little theater, and sings a magnificent aria that attains the uttermost heights of pathos. He must amuse the people while his heart is breaking. He dare not weep as other men, for ” I am only a clown.” Canio goes off sobbing as the curtain descends.
An intermezzo of much beauty and deep feeling is performed by the orchestra between the acts. Its opening measures re-call the funeral march of the ” Gotterdämmerung “dolorous, heart-weary passages that presently break away with a nervous energy into the cantabile theme of the prologue. This intermezzo is not long, and we are again enlivened by the scene on the stage.
It is evening, ” at seven o’clock,” and the mimic theater is illuminated by gay lanterns. The people are flocking to the performance, and they drag forward benches and chairs to sit upon. Tonio stands at one side of the little stage beating a drum, while Beppo blows the trumpet which is still out of tune, and therefore the opening bars of this act are exactly like the first. These good people make a great rush and fuss in getting their seats, and they sing a simple, hearty refrain about the great event of seeing a play. The original and refreshing chorus that delighted us in the first act is repeated, and we become as excited and eager as the villagers to witness the performance about to take place on that little wooden stage with its cheap red curtain.
Silvio is among the crowd, and he finds a chance to speak with Nedda as she passes the money-box. He arranges to meet her after the play, and she admonishes him to be careful. After she has collected the money the players go back of the scenes. A little bell is rung, and the wonderful red curtain goes up.
The comedy is called “Columbine and Punchinello,” and Nedda, who plays the part of Columbine, is discovered sitting by a table. The room is roughly painted and Nedda wears some cheap finery, but the people applaud and think it beautiful. The play-music is all angular and grotesque, glaring effects thrown on in splashes like an impressionist painting. t is admirably appropriate, and perhaps the most unique stroke in the opera.
To return to the action of the mimic play. Columbine soliloquizes for a moment about her husband Punchinello, whom she does not expect home until morning. She looks toward the window and evidently expects some one else. The pizzicato tuning of a violin is heard through the window. The player gets his instrument to the right pitch and then sings a serenade to the “fair Columbine.” She would fain receive her adorer, but at this moment the servant (Tonio) enters. He looks at Columbine, and with exaggerated music and ridiculous sighs informs the hearers that he loves her, and now that the husband is away he finds courage to get abruptly on his knees. Columbine pays no attention to his love-making, but she accepts the property chicken that he takes from his basket. The village spectators laugh and applaud. The scene on the mimic stage is next enlivened by the lover (Beppo), who climbs in through the window, and on seeing the servant promptly takes hold of his ear and shows him out of the room. The spectators, of course, laugh at this and think the whole play very funny. Columbine entertains her lover by giving him a good supper. Their harmonious conversation includes a charming and graceful gavotte melody that is decidedly the gem of this play-music. Its dainty elegance and classic simplicity are worthy of Bach himself.
The servant rushes in upon the supper-scene, and with mock agitation announces that Punchinello is coming. The lover hurries out of the window as the husband enters. t is Canio, the real husband, who acts this part, and as he sees Nedda at the window he is struck with the similarity of the play to the reality. For a moment the play-music is dropped and we hear the serious love-theme of the opera closely pursued by that bitter wail of revenge that clings and creeps around it like a poison-vine. Canio chokes down his grief and bravely tries to go through his burlesque part. A new, jerky little melody accompanies the remarks of Punchinello, and it would be very gay were it not written in the minor, which gives it a touching effect of faint-heartedness. Punchinello asks Columbine who has been with her, and she replies, ” Only the servant.” But Punchinello again asks who was the man” tell me his name.” The last words are real, and Canio no longer acts a part. Nedda tries to keep up the farce, and the serious themes and play-music alternate as the scene goes on. With curses, threats, and entreaties Canio tries to learn the name of Nedda’s lover, and Silvio in the audience becomes uneasy; but the other villagers only think it is fine acting. When Canio at last buries his face in sobs as he recalls how much he loved his wife, the people shout ” Bravo ! ”
Nedda again tries to resume the play. She forces herself to smile and sing the gay gavotte ; but this only maddens Canio the more. With tones of fury he declares that she shall either die or tell her lover’s name. Nedda defies him, and her words are sustained by a distorted arrangement of the love-theme, which effect is like seeking concealment behind a skeleton. The music has become as breathless as the situation. Nedda tries to escape toward the spectators, but Canio holds her, and there follows a piercing shriek. Nedda has been stabbed. She falls, and with her dying breath calls ” Silvio ! ” Canio turns upon her lover and completes vengeance with a single stroke. The orchestra now trumpets forth, like the expounding of a moral, that poignant theme whose growth and supremacy we have watched. The village spectators are still puzzled, and can hardly believe that the tragedy is real. Tonio comes forward and announces in parlando voice that “the comedy is finished ! ”
” Pagliacci ” only occupies half an evening, and even with the “Australian Nightingale ” and a great tenor in the cast the public still expect ” some more.” New Yorkers have become spoiled by the great performances lately given at the opera-house. We take it as a matter of course that Don Giovanni ” should be given with Lehmann, Sembrich, Nordica, Edouard de Reszke and Maurel, and quite expect ” The Huguenots” to have in its cast two great sopranos and the two de Reszkes. We have an idea that a large city like New York should expect nothing less, and are not sure but the European capitals do better. In point of fact, however, when Madame Sembrich sings in Berlin the royal opera-house is crowded by the attraction of her name alone ; and the same may be said of Madame Melba in Paris, or Calvé, or any of them. There are never more than six or seven great prima donnas in the world at one time, and when one of these sings in Europe the rest of the company is often mediocre. But not so in New York. After ” Pagliacci ” with Melba, ” Cavalleria ” with Calvé is the usual programa rather unfortunate combination of operas, for they are both so feverishly intense. After the ” beautiful horror ” of ” Pagliacci’s ” finale, a contrast might be welcome. Glück’s ” Orpheus and Eurydice ” is a short opera that alongside of Leoncavallo’s work would delight the musical epicure. Such an opportunity to study the new and the old would surely be beneficial.