Canio serves as a sort of moral barometer in Pagliacci. Although the tragic clown—smiling on the outside, crying on the inside—is now the stuff of endless parody, we can’t help but sympathize with Canio’s valiant attempts to go on with the show in spite of the devastating realization that Nedda is unfaithful. “Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina,” laments Canio, “put on the costume and make up your face.” In his naivete, he denied his suspicions about his wife and lashed out at Tonio. We might feel a fleeting sympathy for Tonio were it not for the fact that he is a scheming troublemaker. From his first appearance—“I am the Prologue”—Tonio seems mysterious and intriguing, but he soon proves duplicitous and manipulative. A man who claims to be a literary device cannot be trusted.
Canio, on the other hand, never completely loses himself in the character of Pagliaccio. As the opera progresses, his distress, underscored by the music, becomes palpable and increasingly impossible to reconcile with the role of the clown. Finally, his willingness to display his true, volatile nature means that he knowingly exposes himself as a murderer—a sort of foolish courage. Canio’s characterization reinforced by the play-within-a-play device gives the opera its emotional impact. As opera commentator Michele Girardi explains: “Leoncavallo’s undeniable originality lies in the way he was able to combine news item and play in a tragedy of unusually disturbing violence by making ‘stage’ and ‘life’ identical.” Leoncavallo somehow manages to convince us that Canio is a man of integrity even while we recognize that he is also a murderer.
Gianni Schicchi, who is described as a mime, is one of opera’s rarities: truth in advertising. Speaking as Buoso Donati, clad in the dead man’s nightcap and lying on sheets still creased from the corpse, Schicchi is never anything other than himself. Even when he pompously revokes all of Buoso’s previous wills—in Latin, no less—and violates every conceivable form of trust and lawful regulation, he does so for the plain and simple purpose of personal gain. It isn’t pretty, but it is the fundamental motivation for our own actions more times than we would care to admit.
Look out for more connections between Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci this week. Check out the previous entries, Heartache and Heroics and Crime and Punishment. 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.LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.