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  • Pagliacci Musical Highlight: ‘Vesti la giubba’

Pagliacci Musical Highlight: ‘Vesti la giubba’

In this short aria – famously the first million-selling record in history – Leoncavallo tracks his central character’s descent into despair.

By John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation)

27 November 2015 at 10.40am | Comment on this article

‘Vesti la giubba’ is the most famous number in Leoncavallo’s short opera Pagliacci (or Clowns). The first three words are familiar in English translation as ‘On with the motley’, referring to the stage make-up and costume the singer is putting on as he sings. In the original Italian the next line refers to powdering the face, to create the whitened look of the clown Pagliaccio from a commedia dell’arte comedy. The number is about performers and performing – which is also one of the themes of the whole opera.

Canio is an older man who leads a travelling troupe of players. His young wife Nedda is one of the actors, and she is in love with someone in the village the troupe is visiting. Canio finds out that his wife is cheating on him, but can’t discover with whom. At the end of the first act he is left alone to get ready to take to the stage. As a man, he is heartbroken. As a character in the play, he must laugh and play the fool. It is all the harder as his character in the play is a man whose wife is cheating on him. Yet ‘the show must go on’.

The fame of the number was boosted by a recording by the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. He recorded it first, with piano, in 1902 (creating the first million-selling record in the process), but it was the version with orchestra from 1907 that proved especially influential – right at the time when the new invention of recording on disc was taking off commercially. Conveniently, the aria is just the right length to fit on one side of an early 78 r.p.m. record. Other characteristics of the musical style help too: the orchestration is mainly low and undulating, rising and falling in waves with the emotions of the singer, rather than aggressive, sudden and cutting through them. This all means that the focus is clearly on the voice.

In the recitative before the main tune, Canio tells us that he doesn’t know who he is anymore. A man? Or a clown? Then the melancholy aria melody begins. Canio becomes increasingly preoccupied with his situation. He exclaims the famous line ‘Ridi, Pagliaccio’ to an ear-catching five-note theme with the same rhythm as ‘Vesti la giubba’. With irony, he is telling himself that as the clown he must laugh for the crowd. The instruction in the score is for the singer to sound ‘tormented’.

This short number is full directions to the performer, such as ‘violently’ and ‘with great expression’. In the introduction Canio breaks down with cries notated in words, but given no pitched notes. And the final two lines of the aria are marked to be sung with great passion as he ends ‘sobbing’. This overt display of emotion in performance style is characteristic of this type of verismo Italian opera. The intention is to portray raw emotions, strongly drawn as part of a depiction of harsh reality.

‘Vesti la giubba’ contrasts the public face of the character and the private face of the performer. In the second act, Canio acts in the troupe’s play, but increasingly loses grip on what is real. Pagliaccio and his cheating wife Columbina aren’t an act on stage – it is him and his wife Nedda. He forgets he is performing and bursts out of character declaring ‘No! Pagliaccio non son’ – No! I am not Pagliaccio. The audience for the play applaud what they think is brilliant acting. They can’t tell real from fake. They even watch Pagliaccio acting out the murder of Columbina – when it really is Canio killing Nedda right in front of them. In ‘Vesti la giubba’, Canio gives in to the demands of the imaginary world of the theatre. But at the end of the second act, real life tragically wins out.

Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci ran from 3 December 2015–1 January 2016.

The production was be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 10 December 2015. Find your nearest cinema and sign up to our mailing list.

The production was a co-production with Opera Australia, La Monnaie, Brussels, and The Göteborg Opera and is given with generous philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

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