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Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)
Opera Explained. An Introduction to Pagliacci

M Introduction
Background to Leoncavallo and libretti
Commedia dell'arte
Pantaloon, the Doctor, the Bragging Captain
The Lovers and Harlequin

The story's structure; the prologue
The opening: the circus is coming
Nedda's infidelity
Silvio and Nedda
Canio: 'Vesti la giubba'
Intermezzo: Act I to Act II
The play-within-the- play opens
Canio (Pagliaccio) returns early
The denouement
Silvio and Nedda's duet
Music illustrations taken from Naxos 8.660021 featuring the Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Rahbari. with: Canio, Nicola Martinucci (ten); Nedda, Miriam Gauci (sop); Tonio, Eduard Tumagian (bar); Silvio, Boje Skovhus (bar)
Narrative written by Thomson Smillie and spoken by David Timson

This disc joins the rapidly expanding Naxos ‘Opera Explained’ series written by Thomson Smillie and narrated by David Timson. It starts (tr. 1) with a brief extract from Canio’s agonised Vesti la giubba, perhaps the best known tenor aria until Pavarotti and Nessun dorma became the tenorial pot boiler. The relationship of Pagliacci with its heavenly twin, as Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana is often called, is examined; likewise the frequently made claim that Leoncavallo’s creation is musically and dramatically the more cohesive work. That cohesion can be attributed to the fact that Leoncavallo, with his skills as a student of literature, wrote his own libretto. He had been a student of literature at the University of Bologna, the oldest in the world, when impressed by the success of Cavalleria Rusticana, he broke off his studies to write Pagliacci (tr. 2). Leoncavallo’s earlier efforts at composition had not been successful. However, Pagliacci was to make him famous, albeit like Mascagni with Cavalleria Rusticana he was never able to repeat the success. It is said that Leoncavallo derived the basis of the plot from a case his father, a judge, heard in court.

Rather than examine the relationship of Pagliacci with the verismo movement, the narrative goes into a detailed consideration of the Commedia dell’arte tradition (tr.3). This analysis involves the examination of the stock characters of that tradition such as Pantalon, Harlequin, the lover and the young wife with those in Pagliacci. Interestingly, this analysis is extended into operas such as Don Pasquale, The Barber of Seville and L’Elisir d’amore amongst others. Each suggestion of a link is appropriately illustrated by a musical extract (trs. 4-5). The structure of Pagliacci in the concept of a play within a play is touched upon with reference to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream and Hamlet (tr. 6). The remainder of the disc (trs. 7-15) takes the listener through the intricacies of the plot, the nature of the characters, their relationship and the unfolding of the tragedy. This is done in the clear manner that we have come to expect from this series. The explanations are illustrated with relevant and appropriate musical extracts from the well recorded and performed Naxos issue detailed above. The booklet gives a synopsis of the opera and a brief, broad-brush, essay by Thomson Smillie on the history of opera and the place of Pagliacci within it.

There is not the detailed scholarship in the introduction to Pagliacci that I found, and enjoyed, in the recent issue devoted to Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. However, the greater cogency is perhaps appropriates to this most taut of opera plots. Personally, I would have liked a diversion in the narrative as to the place of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana in the verismo movement. That apart this is an excellent introduction to one of the most popular and well constructed works in the operatic repertoire.

Robert J Farr

See also review by John Leeman

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