Opera Scotland

Pagliacci Clowns; Strolling Players

Ruggero Leoncavallo (born Naples, 23 April 1857; died Montecatini, 9 August 1919)

The composer.


First performance: Milan (Teatro Dal Verme), 21 May 1892.
First UK performance: London (Covent Garden), 19 May 1893.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Royal Lyceum Theatre) 11 September 1893.
Scottish Opera premiere: Glasgow (New Athenaeum Theatre), 26 August 1989.

Pagliacci arrived in 1892 almost as if in answer to the prayers of operatic managers the world over. They had struggled to find a piece to pair with Mascagni’s wildly successful Cavalleria Rusticana. Not only does Pagliacci work well in tandem, many consider it to be the better piece, more subtle in plot and interesting in orchestration. Like Mascagni, Leoncavallo laboured for the rest of his career to produce another work with any comparable success.

Main Characters
Tonio a clown, Taddeo in the play (baritone)
Canio, manager of a troupe of players, Pagliaccio in the play (tenor)
Nedda, his wife, Columbine in the play (soprano)
Beppe, a clown, Harlequin in the play (tenor)
Silvio, a villager (baritone)

Plot Summary
The opera starts with a prologue in which Tonio, not yet in character, sums up the contrasts of stage life, while the orchestra introduces themes that will be heard later. The main setting is a Calabrian village during a feast day, when the villagers start by greeting the arrival of a troupe of strolling players, led by Canio. He is perpetually jealous of anyone he might suspect of attempting to flirt with his wife. Tonio is bitter at his constant rejection by Nedda and swears to gain revenge. Meanwhile, Nedda is in fact embroiled in an affair with Silvio, a villager, and hopes to run off with him that night. Tonio overhears their discussion and fetches Canio from the inn, and they arrive just too late to catch Silvio. Tonio and Beppe restrain Canio from killing Nedda then and there, and they persuade him to look out for her lover at the play that evening. Tonio and Beppe go to prepare for the performance while Canio reflects on his heartbroken state.

As the villagers assemble, Nedda collects their money and warns Silvio of danger. The play starts: Columbine’s husband, Pagliaccio, is away and the servant Taddeo at market. She awaits her lover Harlequin, who serenades her. Taddeo returns, but is kicked out of the house by Harlequin. He soon returns to announce that Pagliaccio is coming – Harlequin escapes. As Canio comes on, he is upset by the similarity of play to real life, and is unable to continue in character. He demands the truth from Nedda, who tries to continue the play, but she and the audience become increasingly uneasy until at last Canio stabs her. As she dies, Silvio comes from the audience, and Canio stabs him too.


DECCA (1 CD) Sung in Italian Recorded 1999
Conductor: Riccardo Chailly
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Barbara Frittoli (Nedda), José Cura (Canio), Carlos Alvarez (Tonio)

This is not perhaps the area of repertoire with which we associate this great Dutch orchestra, but Chailly gets them playing like red-blooded Italians and the performance takes flight right from the start. It is also a relief to recommend singers of slightly more recent vintage than the classics below. Frittoli sounds lovely and her duet with Simon Keenlyside’s excellent Silvio goes well. José Cura gives a subtle account of Canio, and Carlos Alvarez, not yet so well known on record, is good, perhaps too young sounding as Tonio. In the part of Beppe, Charles Castronovo makes a good impression.

EMI, NAXOS, etc (1 CD or 2 CDs incl Cavalleria) Sung in Italian Recorded 1953

Conductor: Tullio Serafin.
Orchestra of La Scala Milan
Maria Callas (Nedda), Giuseppe di Stefano (Canio), Tito Gobbi (Tonio).

Callas was vocally at her best around this time, and the great Tosca set with this trio also dates from 1953. Gobbi is a superbly insinuating Tonio. Perhaps Di Stefano sounds too young for Canio, but he does get a nice edge of hysteria into the voice. The small roles are well done by Nicola Monti and Rolando Panerai.

DG (1 CD) Sung in Italian Recorded 1965

Conductor: Herbert von Karajan. Orchestra of La Scala Milan Joan Carlyle (Nedda), Carlo Bergonzi (Canio), Giuseppe Taddei (Tonio).

This set is still hard to beat, with Karajan bringing out all the required tension, backed up by Bergonzi in superb voice. Giuseppe Taddei uses a well-schooled technique and a natural instinct for the drama to make a formidable Tonio. The Welsh soprano Joan Carlyle did not record much, but she is every bit as good as her companions. Beppe and Silvio are well taken by Ugo Benelli and Rolando Panerai.

DIVINE ART (2CDs incl Cavalleria) Sung in English Recorded 1927

Conductor: Eugene Goossens. Orchestra of BNOC Miriam Licette (Nedda), Frank Mullings (Canio), Harold Williams (Tonio).

As with the companion Cavalleria, this is a fascinating example of vintage opera performance. The British National Opera Company operated from 1922 to 1929, playing in London as well as touring the country. They visited all four Scottish cities, with a repertoire that included large-scale Wagner and Verdi pieces and some quite unusual repertoire. At their best, the standard of performance was high. Miriam Licette trained in Italy and enjoyed a long career, starting to sing major roles in her late teens (before the First World War). Mullings' voice is not a lovely sound, but his performance is dramatically acted. Harold Williams perhaps sings too beautifully for Tonio. The small roles are excellently done by well-remembered stars of the company – Dennis Noble as Silvio and Heddle Nash as Beppe. This excellent conductor was the father of composer/conductor Eugene, oboist Leon, and harpists Marie and Sidonie – a multi-talented dynasty.

The Cast

 a player
 leader of the players
First Villager
 Canio's wife
Second Villager
 a villager
 a player

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