Just how much can one man take? Imagine having to don a clown costume while the woman you love poses as a virgin even while she’s having an affair with a local villager. Or how about using nothing but your wits to save a family from losing its legacy—only to be cast into hell? Where is the gratitude? The understanding? Given the extenuating circumstances, can’t we all learn a little about forgiveness?
Or so we might argue when confronted with a double bill of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. While there is precious little of the milk of human kindness in these two short operas, there is more than a satisfying measure of verismo, musical vitality and astute psychology. Although Pagliacci is typically paired with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, staging it with Puccini’s roguish romp has the effect of reconciling two composers whose real-life squabbles (Leoncavallo accused Puccini of stealing his idea for La Bohème) are smoothed over in a sort of posthumous benediction. But we get ahead of ourselves.
Heartache and Heroics
Tragedy and comedy, as everyone knows, are two sides of the same coin. At the opening of each act of Pagliacci, Leoncavallo employs a lively, chattering melody line as a motif for the play’s spectators, while behind the curtain the clowns are obsessed with illicit love and deadly revenge. Puccini’s expansive and lyrical themes in Gianni Schicchi serve perfectly for the idealistic lovers Rinuccio and Lauretta, but when used as underpinning for the scheming Donati clan, the effect is quite different.
Almost none of the characters in these two pieces escapes what opera scholar Peter Conrad calls “a pathology of desire.” As if subject to forces larger than themselves, these characters invariably display the darker side of human nature. Yet, for a brief moment, many are portrayed as sympathetic, even heroic. For example, Leoncavallo’s Canio, inspired by a newspaper story of a lovers’ quarrel, is that familiar character, the common man transformed into the tragic hero—a theme that is at once egalitarian, expressive and modernist.
Puccini and his librettist Giovacchino Forzano likewise offer us a brief glimpse of Gianni Schicchi as a hero. Scorned by the patrician Donatis, Schicchi gracefully overlooks the family’s bad manners and agrees to aid them. (His daughter Lauretta’s heart-melting aria “O mio babbino caro” helps.) His devious brain enables him to trick the Donatis and enmesh them in a scheme from which they can’t extricate themselves without dire results. Further, Schicchi, the peasant, fools both a learned doctor and a trusted notary. Underclass hero though he may be, Schicchi pushes his luck too far and is dispatched to hell before he can enjoy Buoso Donati’s fine villa, his lucrative mills and “the best mule in Tuscany.”
Look out for more connections between Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci this week. Click here to purchase tickets.
Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review and writes about the performing and visual arts. This article is taken from a larger work that appears in the program for Gianni Schicchi/Pagliacci performances.