“All the world’s a stage,” said William Shakespeare in “As You Like It.” “And all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances…”
This is certainly true of Sacramento Opera’s production of “Pagliacci” by Ruggero Leoncavallo. Audiences witness a “play within a play” where the stage and life collide. It is a tale of tormented love, fear, infidelity and the masks humans must wear in society.
Based on a murder trial over which Leoncavallo’s father presided, “Pagliacci” tells the tale of a travelling comedy theater troupe that is presenting a comedy about a man, his wife and her lover…which is mirrored by the “real life” actors themselves — with tragic consequences.
Tragedy and comedy in one opera. Leaving the audience to ponder its role as passive viewers.
Leoncavallo wanted to be one of the great Italian composers — on a par with Germany’s Richard Wagner. His professional rivalry with Giacomo Puccini was well-known. (Leoncavallo wanted to write an opera based on Henri Murger’s “Scènes de la vie de bohème.” He was furious when Puccini announced that he was writing such an opera first).
Today, few of Leoncavallo’s works are produced. Yet, one stands out: “Pagliacci.” It remains in the Top 20 most popular operas in the world, according to Operabase.
This opera, while brief (only one hour and 15 minutes in length), boasts one of the most famous tenor arias in all of opera — “Vesti la giubba.”
This aria, performed at the close of the first act, contains some of the most moving music in the arts. Loosely translated, “The clothes of a fool,” the lead character, Canio, sings of how “the show must go on,” despite his discovery that his love is betrayed.
In the aria’s few bars of music, Leoncavallo takes the audience from self-abasement, to numbness, to agony so profound it is exquisite. As an art form, few composers achieve this at so transcendent a level. (The only other that comes readily to mind is W.A. Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.”)
Enrico Caruso, the famous tenor of the late 19th and early 20th century, recorded this aria for Thomas Edison. Caruso’s 1904 recording of “Vesti la giubba” was the first sound recording to sell a million copies. Despite the poor sound quality of the era, Caruso’s performance is still considered one of the “definitive” performances of this aria to this day.
The opera premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on May 21, 1892 — with none other than Arturo Toscanini conducting.
The November performances of “Pagliacci” by Sacramento Opera will feature Roy Cornelius Smith as Canio, Shana Blake Hill as Nedda, Zachary Gordin as Silvio, Igor Vieira as Tonion and Daniel Ebbers as Beppe.
The Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra will open the first half of the program with selections influenced by the lyric stage and specially selected by Maestro Michael Morgan, conductor of the orchestra. Look for Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” which is characterized as “transcendent” and “impossibly gorgeous.”
The opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.
“Pagliacci” has two performances: Saturday, Nov. 19, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2 p.m. The Sacramento Community Center Theater is located at 1301 L St. in Sacramento. Tickets to both performances may be limited; call for availability. For admission call (916) 808-5181, visit the box office at the theater or visit tickets.com. For more information visit sacopera.org.
Submit your event for consideration in Susan’s column to [email protected]