Even if you don’t know Pagliacci, you know Pagliacci.
The best beloved opus of Ruggero Leoncavallo -- Neapolitan prodigal son living at the turn of the century -- Pagliacci recounts an extramarital affair and a resultant uxoricide (murder of a wife) which recounts in maximature the stock narrative of the eponymous Pagliacci, also known as Pierrot.
The text of Pagliacci renders Canio ("dog," a canny entrepeneur and chauvinist) as the leader of a commedia troupe arriving in a provincial town to much ado. Canio pronounces unlike the dithering Pagliacco he will portray in the evening's performance, he intends to vehemently defend his sexual dominion of his wife, Nedda. The players depart to a tavern and Nedda is accosted by advances which she repels; she meets her lover, Silvio ("wood," as in sylvan) and her spurned suitor returns abruptly with Canio to expose the couple. Canio is enraged, threatening Nedda at knifepoint, yet she defies him, concealing the identity of her liason. Night falls and the show commences; Columbina's (Nedda) tryst with Arleccino is discovered by Pagliacco (Canio) and the parallels compound until Canio's composure is lost, culminating in the onstage murder of Nedda.
Pagliacci is an anachronism in ways not immediately obvious; within the narrative landscape of an America accelerating towards terminal capitalism, wherein the epic¹ with its wholesome dichotomous renderings of good and evil and massively implausible heroism is the balm compulsively applied to the stump from which naive millennial American nationalism was rended, a story about a man, a woman and the other man can seem unstimulating and tedious to a modern audience.
and opera in general, resultantly, are not premiere avenues for literary intepretation.
is about Pagliacci, known in French as Pierrot -- now an American English synonym for “clown” -- a stock character in the tradition of Italian travelling comedy which was “cinematographic” (“record of movement”) before the advent of film or astutely organized theater. Very much of the modern concept of a clown is derived from this tradition. Pagliacci’s name is an Italian transliteration of Peter, plus a diminutive -- “Petey” or “Pete --” he is, instrumentally, a sympathetic character, specifically, a pathetic character. Pagliacci is naive, hapless, buffoonish, idiotic in his ardor for his love interest Columbina (“dove”) and completely obtuse to the machinations of his opponents, including the playwrite.
Again, you know these characters, even if you don’t know them. Classically, Pagliacci’s rival for the affections of Columbina is Harlequin -- Harley Quinn.
Nedda, Canio’s wife and the player of Columbina for the troupe is the true subject of
-- the protagonist, whose action catalyzes the events of the narrative, and the victim whose pathos of unfulfilled potential, longing, horror and sorrow warrant the recounting of the opera at all. Modern sensibilities would not hesitate in describing Canio as abusive of her, evinced by his possessiveness -- forcefully displacing another troupe member for the honor of helping Nedda from the wagon -- and as described stating within her hearing he would murder her for having an extramarital affair.
Aria in opera are not traditionally named, but Nedda’s expository aria -- what might be called in Disney tradition her “I want” song -- has come to be known as Stridono lassu -- “they cry up there,” -- a sung contemplation of the flight of birds.
“Stridono lassu, liberamente lanciati a vol, a vol come frecce gli augel.”
Crying up there, flung, liberated, into flight, flying like arrows to the heights.
The text -- in this case, literal text -- is simply a narration by Nedda of what she is seeing. This is diegesis, or the events that occur unambiguously within the framework of the story.
“Stridono,” a cognate of the English “strident,” more typically may be translated to mean screaming or screeching, a connotatively discordant vocalization evocative of dense negative emotion.
It is generally asserted that good fiction contains nothing which fails to advance characterization or plot; Leoncavallo selected this subject intentionally to cause the viewer to compare Nedda to the birds. Though this sounds not strident or discordant whatsoever, Nedda is screaming, a captured bird.
This is the essence of
In this, Pagliacci is unusual -- the addition of text within text, a narrative within a narrative, has a hall of mirrors effect on the viewer -- disorienting, for . This is far from unheard of, but Pagliacci employs it for particularly excellent effect as
Leoncavallo was masterful in his predictions of the sociopathy concurrent with mass consumption of media.
¹An epic is a narrative concerning events of massive import, such as concerning the fates of large volumes of people, nations or the world.
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