Life and art are invariably intertwined, but seldom as closely as in the opera "Pagliacci" (Clowns). Ruggero Leoncavallo's opera about fatal jealousies in a traveling troupe of actors.

Share story

Life and art are invariably intertwined, but seldom as closely as in the opera “Pagliacci” (Clowns).

Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera about fatal jealousies in a traveling troupe of actors was based on a real-life story: a case encountered by Leoncavallo’s father, who was a police magistrate in Naples. The incident — concerning a middle-aged actor who murdered his unfaithful actress wife onstage during a performance — clearly inspired the story of the opera. Opera composers don’t often write their own libretto, but it looks like this case lit a creative spark in Leoncavallo.

His 1892 opera — short, gritty, and boasting one of the great tenor arias of all time (“Vesti la giubba”) — is a perennial audience favorite, and it takes the stage at McCaw Hall on Saturday evening for an eight-performance Seattle Opera run that concludes Jan. 26. “Pagliacci” is a big favorite among tenors, too, who have built juicy careers around the central role of the clown who’s crying on the inside.

The fabled tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) also found a close intersection between life and art. His 11-year relationship with Ada Giachetti, who bore him two children, was almost as tempestuous as the plot of “Pagliacci”; Ada was unfaithful to Caruso, and she finally ran off with his chauffeur (the two of them later unsuccessfully sued Caruso). The tenor once wrote that as he sang the role of Canio in “Pagliacci,” he wept genuine tears thinking of his own unfaithful lover.

Caruso’s 1907 recording of “Vesti la giubba” became the first record in history to sell a million copies, but by all accounts, his recordings paled before his stage performances. Gifted with a voice so lovely that Puccini once asked whether God had sent Caruso to sing “La Bohème,” the tenor was a uniquely expressive singing actor whose effect on audiences was positively electric.

Audiences at the “Pagliacci” premiere, and later at Caruso’s performances, would have been very familiar with the kind of traveling “commedia dell’arte” troupe of actors Leoncavallo describes in his opera. The actors portrayed stock figures — the male clown and his female counterpart, the young lovers, the wily servant, the old miser, the swashbuckling rogue — in a range of stock plots, as they traveled from town to town. The actors would set up an outdoor stage, sell tickets, and put on a play, improvising their dialogue and lacing it with local and topical references. Often there would be juggling, acrobatics and other stunts to entertain the audiences before the play.

In “Pagliacci,” as the traveling troupe begins its play, Canio (the clown) is consumed with jealousy because he has overheard his wife, Nedda, plan an assignation with a lover (Silvio), whose identity Canio doesn’t yet know.

The play they’ll perform, whose plot has a wife scheming to deceive her husband, is a bit too close to real life. As Canio’s character demands to know the name of his wife’s lover, he stops acting and addresses her for real: Canio sings of how he rescued Nedda as an orphan, cared for her, loved her, and now she has betrayed him. The audience applauds this brilliant “performance,” not realizing that Canio isn’t acting. Furious, he finally draws his dagger and stabs Nedda, demanding the name of her lover, and she calls on Silvio for help; when Silvio rushes in, Canio stabs him, too. Shattered, he turns to the audience and proclaims: “La commedia è finita!” (The comedy is ended.)

It’s powerful stuff. Those two hours (including an intermission) will be over in a twinkling. Bring your hankies.

Melinda Bargreen: