Last Friday, we saw and heard an opera by Leoncavallo called I Pagliacci. (The male protagonist in the opera was called Pagliaccio, because “Pagliacci” is plural for “Pagliaccio” in Italian.) This movie featured an opera from the period which is known as verismo opera. “Verismo,” as you might suspect, means “realism.” In verismo opera, instead of being “heroes,” the protagonists were “real people,” subject to the frailties and failures of the “real” world. Verismo, then, usually meant tragedy, because its creators focused upon what is sad and passionate in our world, not what is beautiful and joyful. And, of course, I Pagliacci was taken from a real-life occurrence.
It is worth thinking about what the opera portrayed, because most of us do not have the opportunity to be performers, and travel around the way Canio (Pagliaccio) and Nedda (Columbina) did. If the marriage was a happy one, that might have been a very pleasant life. I can say from personal experience that traveling with your family can be a blessing and an education in itself (I think our son learned more from his travels than from his home schooling)! You can only imagine what a boring life Nedda had, going from town to town with her older husband and a man whom she did not admire (Tonio) paying her unwanted attention. Representative of her unfulfilled desires was her song about the birds, and her joy in seeing them flying free and to unknown destinations. She, too, had aspirations of flying high and free. She wanted change.
Canio, however, viewed things differently. Having saved a young woman from a disgraceful life, Canio virtually felt that he owned her (which was a common belief at the beginning of the 20th century in little Italian towns). The greatest insult that you could (and can) give an Itallian man is to suggest that his wife is unfaithful. Even if he is unfaithful to her, he expects her to be quite content to have one partner, and if she has more than one, it is a grave insult to his masculinity. Canio was constantly watching his wife, because the difference in their ages and her beauty made him fearful and jealous. And there was no suocera, or mother-in-law, to make sure Nedda kept out of trouble. (In small Italian towns as late as the 1970s, a “decent” married woman practically did not go out without her mother-in-law!!) It was clear from the beginning of the opera that we were being “set up” for something terrible to happen. It was particularly clear to the Italian public that Nedda was not the kind of person they would hold up as a paragon of virtue.
But Nedda was not only married to someone much older and not of her choosing, she was extremely bored with their occupation. The Pagliaccio-Columbina play within a play that you saw was very commonly done, and it must have been very difficult to enjoy acting out the same thing night after night. There was not much artistic creativity to enjoy in the work Canio, Nedda, Tonio and the others were doing. When someone longs for a life in theater, they would do well to remember the long, boring travels (you don’t see anything but hotels, after all) and the irritation of doing the same play night after night. It takes genius to seem inspired when you have been performing the same play or musical for 18 years, as the “Cats” cast did, or 40 years, as the “Fantasticks” cast did! The Pagliaccio-Columbina story must have bored Nedda to death. The slapstick humor was predictable (the table collapsing, for example) and the Italian public expected the same things to happen and laughed with delight when they did. Canio and Nedda would have traveled to small-town carnivals, perhaps in Northern Italy. Although the Italian countryside is charming and varied to an outsider, even the traveling probably grew stale after awhile. And they had no children. Children quickly relieve boredom!
So, what the opera did that was quite remarkable was to engender sympathy for Nedda—if not sympathy, at least understanding. That was a remarkable thing to do, because in such situations, the wife would receive little understanding. She was the one to blame. The husband was immune from prosecution (usually) for murder, under the circumstances. In fact, had Canio not acted as he did, he would have been the butt of scorn and ridicule—certainly the scorn and ridicule of Tonio, who would have broadcast far and wide the fact that the Pagliaccio-Colombina story was true to life. You notice that much was made of Canio’s sorrow. He did not wish to murder his wife. There was simply nothing else to be done. An alternative did not occur to the man of “honor.”
To me, it appeared that Canio loved his simple life and he loved what he did. Clearly, he would not have understood his wife’s desire to change her way of living. I suppose we would say that their marriage was “in trouble” before Silvio appeared to seduce Nedda. But when he did appear, the stage was set for the tragedy to follow.
Did Silvio love Nedda? Probably not very much. When he first appeared in the opera, he was not careful about protecting her: “Silvio!” she exclaims “At this hour! How imprudent!” Someone who cared for her would not have risked being seen as he did. Of course, someone who really cared for her would not have tried to seduce her in the first place. He knew the risk he was running, and he had probably run it many times before. He thought his danger was relatively slight. If he ran away with Nedda, he could always dump her in the next town. He was a man of impulse and passion, with very little brain. But he was probably charming, closer to Nedda in age, and he represented a “way out” to her.
Now, this story can just represent something extremely unpleasant to us, or we can learn something from it—something about another culture, and also something about life in general.
If we think it is an exaggeration about the way men and women might have acted, we have only to remember that it was a true story. Furthermore, Italy loves opera with a dedication that is close to patriotism. Opera was primarily (but not exclusively!) developed in Italy, and it is still much loved there. It was a vehicle for expressing emotion, and still is. Opera, among other things, can be a way of understanding—not just the characters on the stage, but the people who created them, and a people who love music and theater.
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