• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #161: Canio (Pagliaccio)


The tears of a clown

I make no claims to having a great understanding or appreciation of opera. I can appreciate the artistry involved, and like ballet, sit in wonder at the commitment and talent of the performers. Also like ballet, I suspect there are three kinds of consumers: those who have an intimacy with the art form and subject matter and have cultivated a legitimate love of the mode of expression; those who pretend to understand and love it for reasons of society or ego; and those who admit what I have above. An acquired taste, then, like fine scotch or distance running.

That said, there was a night in 1993, with fellow high school students at the Met in New York, when we saw Placido Domingo perform Pagliacci. This was clearly a master at work. Having skimmed the plot beforehand, I had passing familiarity with the characters, but even without comprehension of the Italian words, the staging and music were sufficient to convey the meaning therein. This was a story of love and loss and the blurry line between art and reality. Canio, leader of a troupe of performers, is a professional clown. And yet, in an irony that has been beaten to death since by popular culture, his comic costume conceals sadness, anger, and jealousy.

This is a man convinced (not without reason) that his wife and co-star Nedda is being unfaithful. As the man, Canio, he seeks to discover and revenge himself upon her lover. As the clown, Paggliacio, he faces a similar plot in their show. Canio/Pagliaccio loses his grip on the gossamer difference between theater and life, succumbing to the same kind of madness that leads actors to fall in love with each of their leading ladies, and causes fans to mistake the men and women who inhabit their favorite characters for those characters themselves. Suspension of disbelief carries patrons and performers alike.

There's a tragic ending to this opera, as is common for the form. Consumed by his jealousy, Canio murders his wayward spouse in front of their horrified audience. Aware, at the last, of what he has done, he utters the famous line: "La commedia è finita!" I don't know opera, but I know tragedy, and I have a passing acquaintance with the surrealism of pretending to be someone else for an audience. And on a certain level, we're all professional clowns.

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