Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci was first performed at Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme in 1892 – Arturo Toscanini conducted. It rapidly spread throughout the operatic world and like its frequent partner, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, it was its composer’s only unalloyed success.
The opera’s protagonist, Canio leader of a band of itinerant performers, is married to a much younger woman (Nedda) whom he had literally taken in from the street. She’s having an affair with Silvio, a baritone. Canio catches them in flagrante delicto and goes mad with jealousy. Silvio escapes without being identified. The first act ends with the ubiquitous ‘Vesti la giubba’.
The second act consists of a play within a play. Canio attempts to portray the cuckolded Pagliaccio, but eventually becomes homicidal killing Nedda and then Silvio whose identity is revealed by Nedda’s dying words. The opera ends with the famous “La comedia è finita” – The comedy is finished. On all but two of the excerpts below these words are uttered by Canio. They were written for Tonio, another baritone. It makes dramatic sense for him to speak them as he opened the opera as the prologue. But tenors, most notably Caruso appropriated the phrase. It takes a strong willed baritone or conductor to pry it from the tenor and restore it to the appropriate character. I’ll start the recordings from ‘No! Pagliaccio non son!’ (No! I an not a clown!) or just before and continue to the opera’s conclusion.
The first video is from a 1954 RAI studio performance featuring the young Franco Corelli. Mafalda Micheluzzi is the soprano. Corelli is so crazed that he virtually beats the poor woman to death before he stabs her. She must have needed hospitalization immediately after this performance. Note that the tenor still has a trace of the rapid vibrato that he successfully worked to eliminate from his singing. Tito Gobbi is briefly seen as Tonio. This staging was seven years before Corelli made his Met debut. He gave gave 369 performances with the company over the ensuing 14 years.
Next two videos featuring Mario Del Monaco. The first is from a 1959 performance at the Bolshoi. Del Monaco sing in Italian while everyone else uses Russian. This is opera, so no big deal. Del Monaco is as crazed as Corelli, but easier on his soprano. This was Soviet Russia and he was a visitor.
The second Del Monaco video is from a 1961 performance in Tokyo. Gabriella Tucci is Nedda. As in the Russian version the tenor indulges in a little extra hysteria not in the score. I think his voice is in a little better shape in the first one, as well.
The performance just below is from 1978 at the Met. If you heard Placido Domingo during the 70s, you were in the presence of a remarkable instrument. A beautiful tenor voice was paired with a sound that was seamless and of immense size. While Domingo always struggled with the high C, his B-flat was amazing. Nedda is sung by Teresa Stratas, who is also the soprano on the video after this one. Domingo stumbles over a stool two times. Apparently he really hurt himself the second time, but he didn’t miss a note even when on the floor. He also carried Ms Strats after “murdering” her.
Luciano Pavarotti sang Canio only two times at the Met. He opened the 1994-95 season in the role. Domingo was Luigi in Il Tabarro which headed the double bill. I was at that performance. Pavarotti’s movements were ponderous; he moved only as much as necessary. Stratas had gained some weight in the 16 years between the two recordings and Pavarotti makes no attempt to carry her. He wouldn’t have tried if she were a shadow. Vocally, he was in fine form though the role is too heavy for his lyric voice. He gave the part another shot a week later and that was it for Leoncavallo’s clown at the Met.
Herbert Von Karajan made a film version of this opera featuring the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers as Canio. Raina Kabaivanska was Nedda. Karajan had the authority to allow the baritone (Peter Glossop) to speak the last line.
A more recent video has Roberto Alagna as the killer clown. His makeup suggests recent iterations of The Joker rather than a wandering Calabrian minstrel. The tenor’s voice has been shedding like a ball of lettuce against a gratter over the past decade, but he sounds pretty good in this staging. A less luxuriant wig would have been more appropriate for the well into middle age clown. But he acts and move with vigor and agility. Also, the video is technically very good.
Now for three audios. Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano made a studio studio recording of the opera in the 1950s; it’s still in print. Di Stefano also sang Canio onstage. He was great in the part, but every time he did the role he used up a chunk of his vocal capital. His reaction to the revelation of the name of Nedda’s lover is the most emotionally apposite of all presented here. The two are white hot. Callas Di Stefano No! Pagliaccio non son!
Around the same time that the above was taped Jussi Björling and Victoria De Los Angeles had their say with the opera. Leonard Warren was Tonio and got in the last words. In a supreme bit of luxury casting Robert Merrill was Silvio. De Los Angeles Björling No! Pagliaccio non son!
Richard Tucker didn’t get to Canio until 1970, 25 years after his Met debut. He did the role 23 time over the remaining almost five years of his Met career. It was the last onstage role he ever sang. Not renowned for his acting, he had a triumph as Canio. He also did the role in Florence under the baton of the very young Riccardo Muti. Tucker No! Pagliaccio non son!