One of the most compelling aspects of these two operas is that each breaks the barrier of the fourth wall, that imaginary boundary between the actors and the audience. With Gianni Schicchi, we make it through the entire opera before this disturbing postscript annuls the cumulative comic impulse. In Pagliacci, the fourth wall is broken at the beginning and at the end of the opera, creating an instability that runs as an undercurrent through the whole piece.
Direct address to the audience may not be quite the novelty it once was, but when it happens, it still has the power to shock. When those on stage speak directly to us—and note that in both of these operas, the breaking of the fourth wall is spoken rather than sung—we discover that we have been drawn against our will into an alternative reality of sorts, one neither of the stage nor of real life. In the case of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci, we become unwilling accomplices or at least powerless witnesses.
Each opera presents a case for special pleading. Passion, love, jealousy and revenge are emotions to which we can all relate, but it doesn’t change the fact that Canio stabbed his wife and her lover. The Donatis are greedy and grasping and oblivious to the moral bankruptcy of their actions. What’s more, they are gullible enough to give Gianni Schicchi the power to outsmart them. We wince when Gianni Schicchi, formerly of Florence, now residing in hell, asks us to sympathize with his merry prank. But who wouldn’t, for just a moment, consider the extenuating circumstances before passing judgment?
Look out for more connections between Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci this week. Check out the previous entries, Heartache and Heroics, Crime and Punishment, and Double Trouble. Click here to purchase tickets to Schicchi/Pagliacci.
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.
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