Long before Stephen King appropriated it, there was but one murderous clown. Si chiama Pagliacci. Welcome to the brutal embrace of Leoncavallo’s bloody masterpiece.
Tenor Translator just can’t resist a tragedy, and we’ve chosen a doozy today to give those tear ducts a little working out. Not only that, but our chosen aria, Vesti la giubba, is a stunningly beautiful work of art, and hearing it performed by the peerless Luciano Pavarotti will possibly be the best three minutes you’ve spent in some time. This aria is pretty much guaranteed to make the hairs on your arms stand on end.
I Pagliacci translates as “Clowns” but there’s not much humour in this short opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), which premièred in Milan in 1892.
The story concerns a group of travelling players – three clowns, Canio, Tonio and Beppe; and Nedda, Canio’s wife. Canio runs the show and is a popular and highly entertaining clown, but in real life he’s jealous, moody and a control freak. Not surprisingly, Nedda’s had it up to the eyeballs with Canio’s suspicious nature – and anyway, she’s found herself another fella, Silvio. They plan to elope.
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Tonio, whose own amorous approaches to Nedda were rebuffed in no uncertain terms, overhears her talking with Silvio about running away together, so he rushes off to dob her in to Canio. Silvio scarpers just before Canio returns, but Canio spots him dashing off and badgers Nedda to tell him the name of her paramour. Even though he roughs her up quite a bit in his jealous rage, Nedda refuses to divulge Silvio’s name.
Things are getting rather tense but when Beppe announces that it’s almost showtime, the argument is put on hold while they all go to get into costume.
This is when Canio sings Vesti la giubba – put on your clown outfit, apply your make-up, turn your tears into laughter; this is what the audience wants, so get your act together and act your part even though your heart is in pieces.
He tries to calm himself knowing he can’t perform in such a frenzy of emotion and ends up sobbing in despair, even as he’s singing the words “Laugh, Clown!”
Harrowing! This is beauty, this is art. This is the power of music and the human voice to move us.
The curtain goes up, and the audience is excited to watch the show, which is about Columbine (played by Nedda) who meets her lover while her husband Pagliacco (played by Canio) is elsewhere. Well, all this art imitating life is a bit too close for comfort, and we already know Canio is in a fragile state of mind. Suddenly Canio goes off script and demands that Nedda tell him the name of her lover.
Nedda is alarmed by his actions and tries to prompt him back to the play, but Canio says that Pagliacco is no more, that he’s simply a betrayed husband seeking vengeance.
The audience is enthralled because it’s all so real and dramatic. It’s only when Nedda cries that she’ll never reveal her lover’s name even if Canio kills her, that they realise it is actually real. When Canio brandishes a knife, Nedda cries out for Silvio to help her, but it’s too late. She’s fatally stabbed. Silvio rushes onto the stage but Canio is a man possessed and he attacks Silvio with more than a little gusto. Silvio dies on stage next to Nedda.
A sudden burst of lucidity hits Canio. He reels back, drops the dagger and tells the horrified audience, “La commedia è finite!” – the comedy is ended.
And that, dear readers, is one hell of an ending.
Check out the lyrics here.