In the famous Verismo double bill, nobody remembers Cavalleria Rusticana after they go home. They remember Pagliacci, and no wonder: it is one of those few perfect works of art that show you more infinity than you ever thought you'd see of the heaven and the earth - every note and word matters, adding up to an examination of what life is beyond what you ever thought you could see.
Seeing the climactic scene of Pagliacci at the Met was worth the entire price of admission. I'd never heard of the tenor playing Canio/Pagliaccio, I bought the ticket because I thought Roberto Alagna was advertised, but the tenor we heard - Marco Berti - was probably better than Alagna would have been. He was the only singer who had no trouble being heard all night, and he emoted the famous Vesti la Giuba to heartrending effect. We watch Canio's heart breaking as he puts on his clown makeup, transforming before our eyes from a figure of real life to a figure of our dreams. If the rest of David MacVicar's ideas sucked, the way he staged Vesti la Giuba made up for the entire night. In this production, Canio sings his famous aria in front of the curtain, but after he finishes putting on his makeup, he gradually disappears into the curtain, until all you see of him is his face, which then disappears like everything else of him. It seems to imply that when the curtain lifts again, everything about this staging will exist in our unconscious. These figures of reality have fully become an archetypes of our dreams, their personae just as willing to transform our dream life into nightmares as to delight us.
I suspect that, in this long delayed age of women's liberation, we can no longer view Canio with the sympathy we once did. Beppe, the character who's the only bastion of sanity throughout the opera, assures the town and the audience that Canio is a good man even if his anger seems terrifying. In all decades past, I don't doubt that audiences found it much easier to identify with Canio, a terribly depressed man trying his best to put on a brave face, but who snaps under the pressure of having to appear happy so often. But in 2016, Canio gives the unmistakable impression of a domestic abuser. Nedda, his wife, refers to his towering rages. How many beloved celebrities, from OJ Simpson to Mel Gibson, have concealed a terrible dark side beneath their public high spirits? Sometimes, in the case of OJ or Phil Spector, the dark side reigned unchecked until it was too late, and their abuse became so great that they killed their victims. It's a mistake to judge people of previous eras by the morals of our own, but the morals of our own day give us an opportunity to shed further light on a character who already was a terribly complex antihero.
The Verismo operas aim to portray real life in all facets, and no opera, not even one by Mozart, ever succeeded in portraying life with all its light and dark as Pagliacci does. There is no character in it above contempt or beneath sympathy. All which remains is life as it is, with all its grisly ugliness and moments of beautiful redemption.
Ruggiero Leoncavallo, in thrall as much to Wagner rather than Verdi, was another in the spate of late 19th century opera composers who wrote his own texts. The text (libretto) of Pagliacci is so ingenious that you can't help wondering of Leoncavallo was a better writer than he was a composer. So amazing is it (as amazing as the text of Cavalleria sucks) that the score is always given short shrift. I don't think anybody would call Leoncavallo one of the truly great composers - the few opera lovers truly familiar with his other work find his other operas full of over-orchestrated Richard Strauss-like bombast without Strauss's individual voice. Close familiarity with Pagliacci's score bares the unmistakable imprint of a composer so beholden to Verdi's Rigoletto that at times it almost seems like plagiarism. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of Pagliacci's score can't ever be denied. The archetypal image of all Italian opera - a fat tenor in clown makeup, comes from Pagliacci. It cannot exist without a tremendously effective score. Perhaps it's time to seriously dust off all those other Leoncavallo operas and see if any of them can measure something even close to Pagliacci. Even if it comes up to Pagliacci's ankles, it would be worth seeing.