Pagliacci, Opera by R. Leoncavallo
The trope of play within a play is a favourite tool of good storytellers, and Ruggero Leoncavallo used it to great success in his biggest opera hit, Pagliacci. The composer penned both the music and the libretto, and the premiere at Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 21 May 1892 left audiences stunned. The opera was Leoncavallo’s response to Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni, and it follows in its tracks closely: a love triangle in which one side is gravely wronged, a plot that unfolds rapidly and in real time, and a score marked by dramatic intensity and memorable tunes. The two works’ stylistic similarities inspire many theatres to perform them back to back. However, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma gives Leoncavallo’s highest achievement the full spotlight this season with a single main-bill staging of Pagliacci.
The action focuses on a commedia dell’arte troupe that arrives in a Calabrian village. In preparation for the night’s performance, the locals tease the troupe’s leader Canio that his wife, Nedda, may be cheating on him with the handsome fellow actor Tonio. The husband brushes off the jokes, but little does he know Nedda is having an affair already – with a villager, Silvio. As the preparations for the evening’s performance are underway, however, the hints add up and Canio grows increasingly suspicious. Cornered, Nedda admits her infidelity but refuses to name her lover for fear of her husband’s revenge. During the performance, Canio becomes ever more cross with Nedda, and soon the supposedly light-hearted performance with clowns (or ‘pagliacci’ in Italian) deteriorates into a family fight with tragic consequences.
Leoncavallo masterfully weaves the web of misplaced affections that drives Pagliacci to its bombastic and shocking finale. The compositional work that holds the dynamic action together is truly outstanding. As Canio, Tonio, Silvio, and Nedda navigate their complicated relationships on- and off-stage, reality and art merge into an immersive experience that takes audiences at Teatro Costanzi in Rome into a gripping, harrowing tale.