Two Contrasting Images of Pierrot
(Canio-Pagliacco: Italy: In Ruggiero Leoncavallo's opera I Pagliacci, with libretto by the composer: 1892; Petrouchka: Russia: In Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petrouchka: 1911)
William D. West
Ruggiero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci is often categorized as a "verismo" work, that is, an opera emerging in Italy during the late nineteenth century from the short-lived "realist" school. Such operas, filled with highly charged emotional music, tell of everyday people in familiar situations who behave impetuously and feel primitive emotion. Yet I Pagliacci really remains true to the great nineteenth-century romantic tradition of Italian opera. The music is filled with lusciously romantic harmonies and is conservative when compared to the prior chromatic achievements of Richard Wagner and the contemporary sounds of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Giacomo Puccini. Moreover, by permitting his actors to perform the roles of commedia dell'arte characters who live out their passions both onstage in the fantasy portion of the libretto and off in the real-life sections, Leoncavallo follows the device of a play-within-a-play that was used by that protoromantic, William Shakespeare, whom the nineteenthcentury romantics venerated, and that would be copied time and again thereafter.
The passions revealed amid I Pagliacci's real-life ambiance are those of lower-class entertainers trying to eke out a living through their itinerant performances in small Italian towns in the 1890s, but they and their emotions are as large and exaggerated as those of many medieval and Renaissance heroes and heroines of the earlier romantic operas of Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi.