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Pagliacci in a nutshell

Everything you need to know about Pagliacci (The Clowns) in one place – right here!

What is the story?

The company prepares for the final rehearsal studio run of an opera. Director Canio is eaten up with jealous suspicion of his wife, leading lady Nedda, who, it turns out, IS having an affair with another man – Silvio (the opera’s conductor). The couple plan to escape together, but their secret is discovered by Tonio (the opera’s designer), who has himself been rejected by Nedda. In revenge, he informs Canio of what he knows.

Despite simmering tensions, the studio run goes ahead and the performers each take up their characters, which all mimic their real-life situations. It’s all too much for Canio. Art and reality blur and things quickly spiral out of control, towards Pagliacci’s (pronounced pah-lee-AH-chee) bloody conclusion…

Who are the characters?

Canio, husband of Nedda (tenor)
Nedda, wife of Canio, in love with Silvio (soprano)
Tonio, in love with Nedda (baritone)
Peppe (tenor)
Silvio, in love with Nedda (baritone)

There is also a full chorus, who play their part as a lively on stage audience.

Opera North’s production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Autumn 2017 Richard Burkhard as Tonio and Elin Pritchard as Nedda. Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton.

What is the music like?

Pagliacci is pure Italian opera – big, melodramatic, passionate, but with light and sparkle in the orchestra, particularly in moments of humour.

It has two big hits, the most famous being the tenor aria ‘Vesti la giubba’, in which Canio expresses his anguish at discovering his wife’s infidelity while putting on his clown make-up for the performance. The show must go on, even though his heart is broken, because ‘the people pay and they want to laugh’. The music rises and falls in waves of emotion, and the score specifically instructs the singer to sound ‘tormented’ and for the end of the piece to dissolve into sobbing. The aria is the epitome of the tragic clown idea (smiling on the outside but crying on the inside), and its fame rocketed with legendary tenor Enrico Caruso’s 1902 recording, which became the first ever million-selling record.

The other is the baritone showpiece Tonio’s Prologue, which explains, as part of the show, the concept of verismo. The verismo movement in opera is characterized by realistic, gritty depictions of everyday life, starring everyday people, often building to a violent eruption of some kind. Tonio sings that what we will witness is a ‘slice of life’, and reminds us that performers too are real people with real emotions.

What is this production like?

Charles Edwards’ new production of Pagliacci looks at the collective activity of staging of an opera. Pure meta-theatre, the stage is set as our rehearsal studio complete with model-box of the design, costumes hanging on rails and a tea and coffee station. Each character takes a role as an artist involved in making the production: Tonio is a designer, Canio a director, Silvio a conductor. This provides a fascinating backstage insight, seen from the front! By the time we reach the climactic final sequence, the ‘opera within the opera’, the audience should not be able to tell what is real, and what is theatre…

Opera North’s production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Autumn 2017 Richard Burkhard as Tonio, Peter Auty as Canio, Elin Pritchard as Nedda and members of the Chorus of Opera North. Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton.

Who was the composer?

Pagliacci was written by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), a contemporary of the famous Giacomo Puccini (La bohème, Madama Butterfly) and of Cavalleria rusticana’s composer, Pietro Mascagni. After seeing the vast overnight success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria, Leoncavallo decided to jump on the band wagon and have a go at a one act opera too!

Pagliacci is the only Leoncavallo opera still widely performed. It is now most often performed in a double bill with Cavalleria rusticana, known colloquially as Cav and Pag.

Did you know?

  • The opera’s hard-hitting final line ‘The comedy is finished’ can be sung by Canio OR Tonio. In our production, it is sung by Tonio (as per the original manuscript), which mirrors the prologue and makes clear that he is the puppet master, pulling the other characters’ strings. This line, and Tonio’s Prologue, will be sung in English (instead of Italian), further emphasising the opera’s bookends and the demarcation between life and art that has become one and the same for the other performers…
  • Leoncavallo originally titled his opera Il pagliaccio (singular clown). However, baritone Victor Maurel, the first Tonio, requested that the name be changed to Pagliacci (plural clowns), to stress that the opera was about him too!
  • Pagliacci led the way for opera being available to new audiences via new media: In 1907, it became the first opera to be recorded in its entirety, and in 1931, became the first complete opera to be filmed with sound.
  • Leoncavallo claimed that Pagliacci’s story was based on a real incident from his own childhood – a criminal case over which his father has been the presiding court Judge. He was, however, sued by a French playwright who believed the composer had plagiarised one of his own plots, but that’s another story…

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