“We all know what a crack chorus the Providence Singers has become.”
Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857–1919)
‘Bell Chorus’ (from Pagliacci, 1892)
“Therefore, mark well our souls rather than the poor players’ garb we wear. For we are men of flesh and bone, breathing, like you, the same air of this orphan world.”
— Ruggero Leoncavallo
Prologue from Pagliacci
The son of a police magistrate and judge, Ruggero Leoncavallo was born in Naples and received his musical training there at San Pietro a Majella Conservatory. He also studied literature at the University of Bologna and would eventually be known as much for the librettos he created for other composers as for the operas he composed. (He was the first of several librettists who worked on Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s first major success.) He wrote most of his own librettos.
Enrico Caruso as Pagliaccio
He found employment as a pianist and teacher, training and accompanying singers during his time in Cairo and Paris. He and his wife Berthe Rambaud settled in Milan in 1887, where he began building an operatic career in earnest. In 1890, he encountered Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, an early work in the verismo (realistic) style, which led him to begin writing Pagliacci — a work, he later said, that was based on an actual murder case over which his father presided. Pagliacci was an immediate success with audiences and would become the only one of his dozen operas to remain in the repertoire of opera companies over the years. Operabase, which gathers statistics of opera performances worldwide, listed it as the 21st most frequently performed work for the 2015-16 season with 1,012 performances.
Pagliacci — “Clowns” — was the first opera to be recorded in its entirety, a project Leoncavallo personally supervised in 1907. In 1931, more than a decade after Leoncavallo’s death, it became the first complete opera to be filmed with sound. The role of Pagliaccio would become a favorite with many operatic tenors. Legendary tenor Enrico Caruso’s recording of “Vesti la giubba,” which Pagliaccio sings while putting on his costume, is said to be the first recording to have sold a million copies, though that may have been the total of Caruso’s three recordings of the piece (1902, 1904 and 1907).
Bell Chorus (from Pagliacci)
First performance: May 21, 1892, in the Teatro Dal Verme, Milan; Libretto: Ruggero Leoncavallo
Pagliacci is a story of love, infidelity, jealousy, anger and violence, both in the action onstage and in an onstage play-within-a-play. It poses larger questions of life and art, fact and fiction, as foreshadowed by the character Tonio in a prologue when the curtain rises (“Mark our souls rather than the poor players’ garb we wear.”)
In Act I, a small town welcomes a touring troupe of comedy actors. They are to perform a play about the troubles of Pagliaccio, which will begin an hour before sundown. Canio, the troupe leader, and Beppe, an actor, head for the tavern with some villagers, leaving Canio’s wife Nedda behind. There is some joking and teasing about wives and lovers, but Canio tells the villagers he has no worries. The “Bell Chorus” announces vespers and the approach of evening.
Nedda does, however, have a lover named Silvio, who finds his way to meet her. Tonio, a member of the troupe, overhears their plan to elope after the performance and breaks the news to Canio that he has a rival. Canio and Tonio come running, but Silvio eludes them. (Nedda shouts after him, “I will always be yours.”) Canio demands to know who it was and threatens Nedda with a knife. Tonio intervenes. It is time for the troupe to prepare for performance.
The show goes on in Act II. The real-life actors assume their onstage roles. Canio/Pagliaccio, the foolish husband, is out for the day. Nedda/Colombina is his wife, whose onstage lover is Beppe/Arlecchino. Paralleling real life, Colombina and Arlecchino meet for dinner and plan to elope. They are warned that Pagliaccio is on his way back. Arlecchino escapes. (Colombina shouts after him, “I will always be yours.”) Pagliaccio — or is he Canio now? — hears those real-life words again and genuine jealousies kick in. He is enraged but continues with the play, his emotionally supercharged performance now drawing ovations from the villagers.
Canio teeters between his roles on and off stage. Other actors call him by his stage name, but it becomes clear that he is no longer performing a role. He demands to know the name of Nedda’s lover. Silvio, in the crowd, starts fighting his way toward the stage. Canio, no longer Pagliaccio, grabs a knife and stabs Nedda, who calls for help from Silvio as she dies. Silvio launches himself at Canio, and Canio kills Silvio as well. The villagers react in horror as Canio delivers the opera’s final line: “La commedia è finita!” (“The comedy is finished!”)
Din, don. Suona vespero,
Ragazze e garzon,
A coppie al tempio affrettiamoci
C’affrettiam! Din, don!
Diggià i culmini,Din, don, vuol baciar.
Le mamme ci adocchiano,
Din, don. Tutto irradiasi
Di luce e d’amor.
Ma i vecchi sorvegliano
Gli arditi amador.
Chorus of Townsfolk
Let’s go, let’s go!
Ding dong! It is vespers calling,
girls and lads. Let us join
in pairs and hasten now
to church. Ding dong!
Yonder the sun kisses the western heights. Ding dong!
Look out, companions,
our mothers watch us.
Ding dong! The world is gleaming
with light and love.
But our elders keep watch
over bold lovers!