Enter the Clowns

How the iconic Pagliacci became Ruggero Leoncavallo's one-hit wonder

Is composer Ruggero Leoncavallo destined to go down in history as a one-hit wonder of the opera world? I'm afraid so. But that one opera, Pagliacci, is quite the wonder.

Pagliacci—the Italian for "clowns"—was first performed in Milan in 1892. It was the first of Leoncavallo's operas to be staged and the only one of 10 that has remained in the operatic repertoire over the years. Despite the sparse legacy, Pagliacci has become one of the most successful and popular operas ever written. Its great tenor aria "Vesti la giubba" is iconic in both operatic and popular media worlds, as well as being strongly associated with Leoncavallo's fellow Neapolitan, the tenor Enrico Caruso. That aria, recorded by Caruso in 1907 for Victrola, was the world's first million-selling record.

As a teenager, Leoncavallo had been entranced by the productive prowess of German composer Richard Wagner. This admiration grew with the realization that a composer who writes his own libretti, as Wagner had done, has total control. "I find it quite impossible to set to music somebody else's words," Leoncavallo explained. "With me words and notes are simultaneous; at least, while I am writing the text, the scaffolding, the framework of the music is going up. The phrasing, the elaboration come afterward."

As an Italian response to Richard Wagner's four-part epic "The Ring of the Nibelungs," Leoncavallo planned his own tetralogy on the subject of the Medici family. By 1888 he had completed the text of the first opera, I Medici. However, with the music finished a year later, and after an initial acceptance by the publisher Ricordi, I Medici was turned down.

In the meantime, 26-year-old Pietro Mascagni had created a sensation with his first opera in the verismo style, the one-act Cavalleria rusticana. Unable to get I Medici produced, Leoncavallo decided to try his own short verismo work. He drew his plot from what he claimed was a true story that he remembered from his childhood. His father, a judge in the court at Cosenza, had presided over the trial of a middle-aged travelling actor who, jealous of his young wife, murdered her after a performance. Wishing to immediately capitalize on the heat surrounding Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo wrote both libretto and music for Pagliacci in five months, finishing it for a premiere in May of 1892. It was an immediate hit, and its popularity hasn't waned. Ironically, "Cav" and "Pag," as they are known informally, are quite often performed as two one-act operas on the same bill.

Leoncavallo showed himself to be a very skilled librettist. His plot, following the tenets of verismo drama, is believable and deals with real, earthy characters. A traveling troupe of players enters a village in Calabria for an evening performance. Although the players put up a positive front, all is not well. Canio, the leader of the troupe, is extremely jealous of his young and beautiful wife, and suspects she has a lover. The wife, Nedda, yearns to be free of Canio and in the arms of her lover, Silvio. As the time for the performance approaches, Canio must hide his anger and frustration with the mask of a clown as he sings the famous aria "Vesti la giubba." In the play within the play, reality breaks down for Canio, and real life becomes the play. Canio demands from Nedda the name of her lover; when she refuses, he stabs her. Silvio rushes in to aid her, and he, too, is stabbed. Canio turns to the audience and announces, "The comedy is ended!" as the curtain falls.

In his music, Leoncavallo reveals his admiration for Wagner in his use of simple musical themes to represent characters and situations. His orchestration, while possessing a definite Italian flavor, is built on harmonic constructions that are decidedly Wagnerian. The music is tuneful, but with a lyrical intensity that lends itself perfectly to its genre.

For its Rossini Festival offering, Knoxville Opera brings Pagliacci to the stage of the Tennessee Theatre. Tenor Michael Hayes, last heard as a wonderful Calaf in the Knoxville Opera Company production of Turandot, returns to Knoxville as the jealous clown Canio. Soprano Joyce El-Khoury, who recently became a member of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, will appear as Nedda. Baritone Scott Bearden will sing Tonio; John-Andrew Fernandez will appear as Nedda's lover, Silvio. Tenor Adam Lloyd, seen previously in KOC's productions of Carmen and Tosca, returns to perform Beppe. The stage director for Pagliacci is Stanley M. Garner, and the conductor will be KOC General Director Brian Salesky.