February 15, 2024

Pagliacci: Masks and Dreams Deferred

When we think of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, what comes to mind? The most famous visual image is probably the poster of Pagliacci’s original piano/vocal reduction, which features a solitary clown looking with strange moon-eyes directly at the observer.

Several aspects of this image are striking: firstly, the posture of Canio, the main character and the principle pagliaccio (“clown” in Italian), is more complex than what meets the eye. His crossed arms are both defiant and containing, as if he dares the world to bring something else at him because he knows what a violent explosion will erupt from his core. His stance is unbalanced as well, with one foot advanced and the other retreated and at an angle, holding the entirety of his weight. This posture suggests at once performance, implying ballet’s third position; provocation, resembling a fighting stance in fencing, a duel sport of disgraced honor; and a dangerous mental and emotional tipping-point.

Secondly, this minimalist, hand-drawn image comprises three striking colors which pop from a neutral shade of light brown paper: black, white, and red. These are the classic harlequin shades; the colors of light, darkness, and human life; colors of a classic game board; conflicting opposites in the absence of color, the presence of all color, and a primary color. Another detail becomes apparent: the lack of a background surrounding the clown. Where is he? Where does the story take place? Where is his community, his history, his home? All that surrounds the pagliaccio is a void - an ugly, raw material which he defies by his very vivid presence. With restrained means of a single character drawn in a static pose, a deliberate absence of background, and three bold colors, the iconic image of Pagliacci transmits the loneliness, desperation, and defiance of its central character with incredible articulation.

Another point begs examination: if the opera is about one man’s descent into despair and destruction, why is the title Pagliacci (“clowns") and not just Pagliaccio (singular, “clown”)? Perhaps every main character in this doomed love triangle is a pagliaccio - equally defiant, desperate, and unstable in their unique way.

Nedda had lost everything while still a child, and was rescued from the streets by Canio, an older man who had barely a bit more means yet enough to share. But she had no choice in her life - neither the loss, or the rescue from loss, were options; rather, they were unavoidable finalities. As a young woman she feels alive and vibrant, and rebels at the drudgery of her imposed errant life. She longs to feel passion, belonging, and stability - and the freedom to choose her own path. Canio is the head of the pagliacci and as such is responsable not only for his survival but for that of his troupe - a rag-tag group of social misfits whom he employs to roam in an endless artistic exile. There is no end in sight for the chronic insecurity, loneliness, and struggle he faces. His one source of beauty and sweetness - his young wife - is about to betray him, and Canio is tormented by jealousy and paranoia as he feels her encroaching inevitable desertion. Tonio is perhaps the most deceptively complex character of them all. Behind his appearance of anodyne invalidity breeds an odious figure of evil which has been often compared to Shakespeare’s Iago. He secretly covets his boss’ wife and luridly spies on her; he has a mountain of repressed anger and reacts to Nedda’s rebuff with an eruption of brute physical violence; and is the secret grandmaster behind the human chess game which ultimately results in Canio’s murderous psychotic break. There is even an element of the supernatural about Tonio: the orchestral music shape-shifts into an eerie luminescent vacillation while he incants a curse upon Nedda for her rejection. As with any über-villain, Tonio cannot help himself and must share his diabolical tactic with others. At a critical moment in Canio’s despair, Tonio counsels: “one must pretend in order to succeed” (“bisogna fingere per riuscir!”).

In disclosing his secret to the boss he betrays, Tonio also unveils the ultimate secret which resonates into the public: all pagliacci wear masks. Who among us does not wear masks in our everyday life? Perhaps there is one for work, another for home, a third when by oneself. Perhaps we construct a mask to hide our pain, our struggle, our lost hopes. Are we then all pagliacci? Do we even know which is a mask and which is our true face? This tension of changing masks and discovered faces creates a dichotomy - different energies and personas working in friction with one another. But how long can these opposing forces co-exist without exploding?

As the poet Langston Hughes asks in his Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-- And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?