"Bravo to conductor Carlo Goldstein for conducting this excellent orchestra with elegance, free from any exaggeration, and with an attention to detail that did justice to this sophisticated score."  

Musica - Nicola Cattò


A Reflection on Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo

One hot Calabrian summer in the 1860s, the young son of a magistrate witnessed a horrific, bloody scene: poor strolling players, consumed with jealousy, committed murder during a performance in the public square. This obscene act, a glimpse of a horrible truth, crept into the imagination of that good little boy from southern Italy. A truth that stank of sweat, streets, and foul feelings; a truth that did not tolerate masks, and went far beyond the stage.

Thirty years later, Ruggero Leoncavallo finally achieved great success by revisiting this childhood memory through his first opera: Pagliacci. This first opera was, in a certain sense, also his definitive opera. Pagliacci is the Leoncavallo work in which echoes of Verdi, Bizet and the influence of Leoncavallo’s youthful adoration of Wagner achieve an original synthesis; where the poetry of the “giovane scuola” is able to fully express its idiom. The opera is capable of melding a classical vision of theater, reminiscent of the old Commedia dell'Arte – the Prologue as poetic manifesto, the play within the play – with the blood and vehemence of the new age. Leoncavallo found its voice, and that voice was forthright and sincere.

Pagliacciis the tragedy of a man: Canio dominates the core of the story from both a dramatic and a musical perspective. He is the pivot around which the entire score revolves, from the initial folklore to the inevitable final drama.

The grandiose choral scenes that open both acts serve as the welcome of the Chorus– the everyman of this sacred-profane performance – to the tragedy’s unaware protagonist. And thus almost all the musical leitmotifs are linked to the protagonist: Canio’s love, Canio’s threats, Canio’s suffering, Tonio plotting behind Canio’s back, Nedda trembling in Canio’s presence or falling in love with Silvio in Canio’s absence; all the way to the theme, anticipated by the horns in the Prologue, of the famous aria “Vesti la giubba…”, in which the feelings of the protagonist become a drama of self-discovery. Canio is here caught between the demands of the stage and his own inner turmoil, as the mask forces men to adopt an unsustainable sincerity. This is the theme of Canio’s tragedy, which explodes with all its urgency.

Canio is a musically contradictory character. Even his very first aria “Un tal gioco, credetemi…” expresses this ambiguity: the music is mellow and tender, yet the words themselves are threatening. After this sortita, every moment of his parable is marked by duplicity: he loves Nedda but despises her; he does not want to go on stage but must do so; he desperately screams “No, pagliaccio non son…” precisely because he knows he is one; and just a few bars before giving in to his fury by becoming a murderer, he accuses Nedda, saying “sol legge è il senso a te…”

Toward the end of the opera – at the culmination of the great cantabile “Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva…” – Canio acquires the stature of a genuinely tragic victim, as he struggles with a conflict that cannot be overcome, yet nevertheless must be confronted head-on.

The musical symbol of this great realist character is the grancassa, the bass drum.

Leoncavallo conceives of Canio as the leader of this acting company who, armed with his bass drum – just like in the famous Enrico Caruso photograph – calls upon the public to attend the performance. Canio’s bass drum certainly represents the earth-shattering fury of his jealousy, but it is also the instrument that recalls a key part of himself: the audience!

Canio is indeed an actor, who goes on and off stage for a living. His life involves constantly putting on a mask in front of the public. But in Act II, consumed by jealousy, he commits an unforgivable act during the Commedia: he removes his mask before the public. Then he can see himself clearly reflected in the eyes of his audience: he can see that yes, once and for all, he is a clown, with or without the mask!

In his youth, Leoncavallo had dreamed of bringing the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk to Italy. Instead, he succeeded in a different endeavor: he created a distinctive musical idiom that, over the last century, has become the emblem of a popular, authentic Italy, inspiring productions ranging from Fellini’s clowns to big Hollywood films, all the way to cheap pop iconography. In essence, Leoncavallo succeeded in attaining the same accomplishment for which Wagner is universally recognized: he wrote music that represents an entire people, an entire nation; music that captures its definitive character and contributes to defining its destiny.

That boy who, during the years of Italian Unification, saw a theater of strolling players in a Calabrian square, was apparently able to capture something essential in the spirit of that nascent country: hidden in the folds of a miserable, precarious existence was the need for its dignity to be recognized. Canio is the voice of that people – a voice that even today gives us a thrill.