Very recently, I had the chance to watch an incredible production of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci at the Royal Opera House.
Despite the fact that both shows were incredibly well performed by an incredible cast including Aleksandrs Antonenko, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Carmen Giannattasio, the post-show Twitter reactions had me thinking why is it that Cavalleria Rusticana seems to go down better with audiences.
Granted, it’s got a tremendous duet, Santuzza is a really incredible character from a psychological point of view and the tunes are great.
Yet every time I see this double-bill, Pagliacci always seems to me like the best of both works.
Despite the great melodies, I find Cavalleria a fairly flawed piece from a dramatic point of view and its dramatic fragility lies precisely on the great tunes. Or better said, the repetition of these which makes natural acting extremely difficult for singers. At a time when Puccini was timing music and stage actions in a really cinematographic way and very rarely repeating melodies and text within the same number, Mascagni’s handling of dramaturgy comes across as old fashioned but not old enough to enable a more stylised delivery in the tradition of the Bel Canto repertoire. It lies at an uncomfortable middle-ground making it difficult for singers to find variety of actions when they have to repeat the same text over and over again and that is a major draw-back in any Verismo work where you want the action to resemble real life as much as possible.
Now, Pagliacci, on the other hand, is a beautifully through-composed work where the big duets and even the arias flow in a very natural way, allowing the singers to naturally plan their actions and reactions, without having to worry that the music and words they’ve just sang will come back in a minute or so.
Also, from the point of view of the characters, it’s a much richer opera. Cavalleria has one interesting and three-dimensional character which is Santuzza. However, we never really get to know Alfio or Turiddu well enough to understand the reasons for their actions.
Pagliacci however presents us an incredibly detailed reality where all the characters are beautifully developed: from the beginning we know that Canio has a dangerously jealous dark side which makes his decay into a murderous rage all the more believable; that Nedda is longing to leave the Company and is being hounded by Tonio who’s a dangerously frustrated and jealous man. In the middle we get Silvio who, in the stage time he’s given, gets to travel between jovial love, jealousy, frustration and finally love again.
Even the scene which could be potentially problematic - the Play within the play - is handled by Leoncavallo in a tremendous way, first by presenting it in typical Commedia Dell’Arte silliness, and slowly giving way to the mix of both realities when Canio comes on stage, blending both worlds through his personal tragedy.
All these characters are well developed and have been given music that adapts beautifully to the action, so that when Nedda and Silvio are murdered, we feel not only for them, but also for Canio who’s been driven to the darkest depths of despair.
Can we say the same about Turiddu? Not really. We don’t get to know him that well as a character. He’s presented as one-dimension scoundrel and even when he dies, we don’t really get to go on that journey with Santuzza.
I leave you with these thoughts and urge you to give Pagliacci a chance the next time you hear it!