The evening begins with a prologue delivered directly to the audience by the singer who will play Tonio, a hunchback character from the story that’s about to unfold. He asks the audience to see beyond the façade of the performers’ costumes and make-up, and remember the human being there, who suffer the same trials and tribulations as everyone else. He then orders the show to begin.
In a village in southern Italy, a crowd welcomes a traveling troupe of players. Canio, their leader, greets the villagers and invites them to a play that evening. The men urge Canio to join them for a drink at a nearby tavern, but they teasingly warn him not to leave his young wife, Nedda, alone with Tonio, who—they say—might make the same kind of romantic advances to her in real life that his character will in the play. Canio answers that while his role as a jealous husband on stage creates comedy, the same situation in real life would end differently. He then departs with the villagers.
Thinking she is alone, the young Nedda reflects on the potential danger of her husband's jealousy. But she refuses to be burdened by such fears. The sight of birds flying overhead triggers the memory of a song she once heard in childhood, and she begins to dream of a life more free. Tonio overhears her fanciful outburst and takes the liberty of declaring his love for her. Even though she scorns him and ridicules his deformity, he tries to kiss her. When he persists, she grabs a whip and strikes him. Cringing with pain, Tonio swears that she will pay dearly for her actions.
No sooner has Tonio gone off than Silvio appears. He is a young villager with whom Nedda has been having an affair. He wants her to leave her husband and run away with him. Nedda at first refuses, but finally she gives in to Silvio's impassioned pleadings. Tonio, returning from the tavern, catches sight of the lovers and, seeing the opportunity for revenge, runs off to fetch Canio. The enraged husband arrives just in time to hear his wife promise to meet Silvio later that night. At Canio's approach, Silvio escapes unrecognized into the woods. Canio demands that Nedda reveal the identity of her lover. She refuses. Canio, beside himself with rage, is about to kill her
when Beppe, another member of the troupe, stops him. He reminds Canio that the villagers are assembling for the performance and tells Nedda to get dressed for the play. Canio reflects ironically that he now must go on stage as Pagliaccio—the Clown—and make people laugh, even though his heart is breaking.
The villagers gather excitedly to see the performance. The play presented by Canio and his troupe is a mirror of the previous, real life, events. Tonio plays the part of the stupid servant Taddeo, who declares his love for Columbine (played by Nedda). She scorns him to make way for her real lover, Harlequin (played by Beppe), who arrives for an intimate supper. This cozy scene is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the husband, Pagliaccio (played by Canio). Harlequin escapes as Columbine promises to meet him later that night, using the same words that Nedda used to Silvio that very afternoon.
As Canio proceeds to play his part, the tragic reality of the situation begins to overshadow the make-believe. He insists that Nedda name her lover. She laughs him off and tries to continue the comedy. But Canio, carried away, reproaches her for her ingratitude and her betrayal. Some of the spectators begin to wonder whether the actors are playing parts or are actually in earnest. Nedda reminds Canio that she has never been a coward and persists in her refusal to name her lover. Pushed beyond the breaking point, Canio seizes a knife and stabs Nedda. With her last breath she cries out for Silvio, who has been watching the play. He runs onto the stage and Canio, now aware that Silvio is his wife's lover, stabs him to death. Amid the agitation of the horrified onlookers, Tonio ends the “performance” (and Leoncavallo’s opera) by stating simply: “The comedy is finished.”
CARMINA BURANA PLOT
Carmina Burana is a scenic oratorio composed to the texts of Goliard poems from the 13th century. The manuscript containing these verses was discovered in 1803 at a Bavarian monastery in Benediktbeuern; the term “Burana” in the title is the Latin adjective identifying this location. The subtitle of the work, “Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis,” means “Secular songs for soloists and chorus, accompanied by instruments and supplemented by scenery.” Although there are a number of contexts for human interaction in some of the pieces, there is no plot continuity or overall dramatic action in this series of songs. Composer Carl Orff envisioned Carmina Burana with optional action and dance, although he did not provide written instructions as to how it should be staged. Thus, it has been presented in a wide variety of ways. Although most frequently seen in concert form, the work is extremely theatrical and adapts well for the stage. Portland Opera’s production has been conceived by Christopher Mattaliano as a fully staged production featuring the dynamic Portland modern dance company BodyVox, with choreography by Artistic Directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland.
The medieval Goliards (the term is a nickname meaning “big mouths”) were scholars, monks and priests who had abandoned conformity to the Catholic church. Individualists in a time when such behavior was considered heresy, they lived vagrant lives, begging, thieving, and singing. They wrote their verses mostly in Latin, although portions of their texts are in the vernacular languages of the areas in which they lived. Their best poetry is a frank avowal of their pleasures, their simple zest in living, and the joys of an earthy existence.
The manuscript discovered in the Benediktbeuern monastery contained the most extensive collection of Goliard poetry ever found. Its authors were various and anonymous. It is surprising that a monastery’s library contained a volume of such scurrilous material. The justification for this is that the volume had originally belonged to a secular court and had been assigned to the monastery for archival purposes.
In Carmina Burana, Orff chose to set only a portion of the manuscript to music. The melodic language he employed mixes folksong elements from his native Bavaria with a parody of Gregorian plainchant, matching the ridicule of religious forms found in the texts. The musical fabric is bold and colorful. Its strong rhythmic emphasis demands an enlarged percussion section. Although these effects are striking, they are not complicated. The melodic material is tonal and straightforward, unadorned by counterpoint or formal variation. The harmonic effects are reduced to bare essentials. All of these choices magnificently enhance the poetry’s attention to what is simple, sensuous, vigorous, and direct.
Orff chose to organize the texts of Carmina Burana into three contrasting sections: exploring themes of renewal and sexual awakening in Early Spring; alienation, debauchery, and corruption in In The Tavern; and both unrequited and requited love in The Court of Love. These three groups of poems are flanked by identical musical settings of the same poem “O Fortuna” (Oh Fortune), bemoaning man’s fate as a mere pawn of destiny’s mighty and often cruel hand.
Carmina Burana has won a firm place in the musical repertoire of Western culture. It has enjoyed enormous popularity and has often been adapted effectively for theatrical purposes for both stage and film.
I. Fortuna, Imperatrix Mundi
(Fortune, Empress of the World)
II. Primo Vere (Early Spring)
Uf dem Anger (On the Green)
III. In Taberna (In the Tavern)
IV. Cour d’amours
(The Court of Love)
V. Fortuna, Imperatrix Mundi
(Fortune, Empress of the World)
Fact or Fiction: On the Tangled Trail of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
“I remembered, then, the bloody tragedy that had gouged the memories of my distant childhood, and to the poor servant murdered under my eyes; and in not even twenty days of feverish work, I threw down the libretto of Pagliacci.”
When Ruggiero Leoncavallo was 8 years old, his babysitter, Gaetano Scavello, was murdered. It is highly unlikely that Leoncavallo was actually there, as the murder took place at four in the morning outside of a theater. For any child, such an event would be a horrific blow, but, perhaps, for the highly imaginative, sensitive Ruggiero, the murder and the subsequent trial metastasized into a graphic paramnesia* which was to germinate his greatest work of art 27 years later. Or, as in so many cases in Leoncavallo’s life, he wanted to give legitimacy to his claim that Pagliacci was utterly original, and so embellished his involvement in an already tragic and traumatic experience. One leans towards this last explanation, as yet another letter to his publisher swears that:
“… while my father was a judge at Montalto … a jealous player killed his wife after the performance … [which] made a deep and lasting impression on my childish mind.”
Regardless of the facts of Leoncavallo’s presence or absence, it is true that Scavello’s murder had a profound effect on his life and that of his family. His father, Vincenzo, was the presiding judge at the trial, and the murder must have taken up a huge chunk of the family’s psyche at the time of the killing and subsequent prosecution. That the composer claimed it as the seed of Pagliacci makes it worth examining the facts of the case.
The file of the case reads roughly:
“Proceedings filed against Luigi and Giovanni D'Alessandro who were charged with premeditated murder committed with weapons and insidious lurking on the evening of 5 March 1865 upon the person of Gaetano Scavello of Carmine.”
At the time of his death, Scavello was twenty-two years old and in love. Unfortunately, he had a rival for the girl’s affections, Luigi D’Alessandro. In what seems an extraordinarily convoluted motive for murder, Scavello confronted D’Alessandro’s manservant after the servant had escorted the young woman to a house and demanded to know if she was inside with D’Alessandro. When the servant declined to answer, Scavello “struck him with a mulberry branch, whereupon Pasquale [the servant] ran away to seek the help of his two employers.” D’Alessandro and his brother came gunning for Scavello with a whip—Scavello, knowing superior strength when he saw it, threw a couple of rocks at the brothers and hightailed it out of there, the D’Alessandro boys in hot pursuit. They were unable to catch Scavello at that time, but instead, lay in wait for him (“insidious lurking”) outside of the theater, stabbing him as he left the show, one in the arm, the other in the abdomen. Scavello died the next day, after fingering the brothers for his murder. The D’Alessandro’s were brought up on trial and one received a life sentence, the other 20 years hard labor. Ironically, in Leoncavallo’s explanation of how he had written Pagliacci, he noted:
“… what is stranger still, as I have since learned, the protagonist of my work is still living and having been released from prison is now in the service of Baroness Sprovieri in Calabria. If the action had come to trial [meaning a plagiarism lawsuit threatened by French playwright Mendes], he would have been willing to come and give evidence in my favor. I regret that this did not happen, as we should have had a very dramatic scene during the evidence of poor Alessandro (the real name of my Canio) when he was relating his crime, his jealous fury and his sufferings!”
So much for the facts. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Pagliacci might be forgiven for asking, “But where are the clowns?” Other than a jealous love triangle, a “tattletale” servant (a stretch to equate Pasquale to Tonio, no doubt), an initial escape and subsequent knifing death, there is little of real life in Pagliacci. One might forgive the composer some creative license in putting the action of the opera on Assumption Day—plenty of local color to be derived from the religious celebration of peasants, not to mention the time honored theatrical juxtaposition of the holy and profane. But Leoncavallo does significantly more than that—he introduces the element of a play within a play, and even later, at the request of the baritone who was to create Tonio, added the famous “Prologue,” which gives another direct line to the audience, adding another layer of “reality” to the layers of reality and unreality inherent in the original story.
Of course the concept of a play within a play was not unknown to Leoncavallo. The concept of the “story within a story” is ancient and utilized in literature from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, as Scheherazade stayed up nights trying to keep her head between her shoulders, to Shakespeare’s Danish prince attempting entrapment of his father’s murderer.
In the mid-19th century, a volume of the “complete works” of the French 17th century playwright, satirist, charlatan and actor Tabarin brought renewed interest to the commedia dell’arte and the clown himself. Tabarin had taken his name from a commedia mask—the character was named for the defining part of his costume, his cloak (tabarro, in Italian). The name given to him by his parents was Antoine Girard. He would stage “impromptu farces” to peddle his “medicinal” elixirs and draw a crowd. From 1618 to 1625 he delighted Parisian audiences with his wit, his bawdiness and slapstick, and in the 1850s he posthumously drew a literary crowd of imitators and became the legendary subject of many plays and opéra comique. Now both the character and the man had a wife, Francisquine, also a commedia mask. According to Gustave Aventin, who was the editor of 19th century “complete works”:
“This Francisquine figured in jokes played in Tabarin’s theatrics, and if we are to believe some questionable traditions, she did not pride herself on marital fidelity.”
This salacious (and undocumented) tidbit in the forward of a book was enough to inspire several plays about the relationship of the clown and his unfaithful wife, one of which was by Catulle Mendès, entitled Le Femme de Tabarin. This play had an antecedent in a comedy by Paul Ferrier, who would later accuse Mendès of plagiary, just as Mendès would Leoncavallo.
Actually, Leoncavallo’s and Mendès’ plots are quite similar. In Le Femme de Tabarin, Tabarin’s wife is in love with another and flirting with him while performing in a play. Enraged, Tabarin stabs her and weeps bitterly as she drags herself towards him and smears his lips with spilt blood before she dies. The audience of the play within the play takes quite a while to catch on that something is amiss—indeed, one erstwhile fan tries to give the dying Francisquine a bouquet of flowers and is shocked when his hand is bloodied. But this is where Mendès’ play ends. Leoncavallo’s opera creates a whole other level of disquiet with the Iago-like figure of Tonio, who not only drives the action of the opera, but comes out of character to address the audience to tell us not to dismiss the emotions of the players on stage as mere caricature, but to understand it as life, as accurate as our reflections in a mirror.
Mendès threatened to sue Leoncavallo for stealing his idea, just at the height of Pagliacci’s popularity. This was supremely irritating for the composer, who was finally basking in the glow of the recognition he felt he deserved. As it was, he had had to deal with some critics accusing him of “lacking originality.” And that must have stung, because there was a germ of truth in it, which niggled at him like sand in an oyster. After the success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Leoncavallo co-opted a genre he hated and made it his own. It was opportunistic, but resulted in a powerful work of art. A combination of influences and ideas coalesced into one pithy, sleek, brilliant and bloody verismo that is wildly effective. No wonder he was determined to claim the work as utterly and completely his own!
Mendès dropped his claims when Leoncavallo countered that Mendès himself had borrowed elements of his plot from others. Some stories and ideas are universal. Shakespeare was hardly original in his plotlines. Even the ancients acknowledge that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Leoncavallo combined his memories with literary devices which stretch into antiquity to create something his own. Ultimately, Pagliacci has eclipsed all of its antecedents to live on in the opera house and our collective memories.
This article is heavily based upon the work of Matteo Sansone and Konrad Dryden. Thank you.
*a distortion of memory in which fact and fancy are confused.
Primal Music: The Potent Poetry of Carmina Burana
“Contrary to what conductors tell you … size does matter.”
—Marin Alsop in "Love, Lust and Drinking Stir Carmina”
NPR, Morning Edition, 2006
In Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, size does matter. As of this writing, Portland Opera’s production of Carmina Burana will include nearly 150 people performing on stage and in the orchestra pit. For Orff’s conception of an elemental, universal, immediate, overwhelming theatrical piece, it is fitting that from its monumental opening chords, the audience is intensely aware of the underlying, primal power of the human voice. In this context (and perhaps in the bawdy context of the original medieval texts), size does indeed matter.
In 1937, Carmina Burana opened to rather mixed reviews, and in Nazi Germany mixed reviews were anxiety producing. With the Reich’s rise to power in the early 1930s, Carl Orff’s artistic position was suspect. He was associated with the free-wheeling modernism of the Weimar Republic, although he didn’t write atonal music or appreciate jazz. His educational activities did, however, utilize Asian-inspired percussion instruments, and his music was insufficiently respectful of the “Old Masters.” His revisions of the St. Luke Passion and its stage adaptation were unappreciated by Bach purists, and further branded him as avantgarde. The undeniably lewd lyrics of his new work, Carmina Burana—as well as its driving rhythmic core vaguely reminiscent of Stravinsky and “black” music (at least to the Nazi mind)—further alienated it from some of the Reich’s music critics. But there was another wing of the Nazi party who viewed the fanatically simplistic Carmina Burana, with its repetitive, climatic rhythms and folkish melodies as some sort of primordial music of the Volk. One could be cynical and interpret Carmina Burana’s increased popularity among the party establishment as trending with the unrelenting public popularity of the piece, but that might undermine the genuine and mesmerizing power of the music to win over audiences on its own. And it is mesmerizing. And possibly the best known piece of 20th century music the world over. Is it even possible for a horror or fantasy movie trailer to be made without scoring its opening sequence to “O Fortuna”?
“Regnabo; regno; regnavi; sum sine regno.”
“I shall reign; I reign; I have reigned; I am without a kingdom.” Inscribed around the frontispiece to the collection that became known as Carmina Burana.
As a minor point of trivia, Orff came upon the poetry which inspired his best known work on Maundy Thursday, 1934. It is interesting that Orff should be inspired by such vivid, randy, corporeal poems on a high holy day, but it might have tickled the fancy of the Goliards and vagantes that wrote them. After all, for the general public, Orff’s music immortalized their poems. Orff was so excited by the poems almost physical impact that he marked the moment in his diary: “A memorable day for me ... I immediately found, on the front page, the long-famous picture of Fortune with her wheel. Picture and words seized hold of me." Orff’s grandfather had been an historian and a lover of literature, myth and legend, a trait he passed on and nurtured in his grandson. So it is not surprising that Orff would have been reading one of the two most important texts of medieval, secular poetry as yet discovered: Carmina Burana. (The other is English, Carmina Cantabrigiensia.)
In 1803, the collection was discovered very near to Orff’s Munich home in the monastery of Benediktbeuern, nestled picturesquely in the green foothills of the Alps. The Latin title Carmina Burana (“Songs of Beuern”) was given to them when they were found, compiled and translated. The songs were a disparate collection of mostly 12th century poems, plus six plays, mostly in a “vernacular” Latin (a Latin removed from the Church and the poetic rhythms of the Romans themselves), but also including Middle High German, some French, and some macaronic texts, in which Latin, German and French were jumbled together into a sort of pidgin language. They were collected and bound sometime in the 13th century (although some additional poems were bound in later). The purpose of the texts was to entertain and express the individual poet’s thoughts and feelings. They were thoroughly secular, though occasionally mocking religious writings to satirize the failings of the Church. Most of the poet’s names are lost to antiquity, but they are known under the collective name of the Goliards, or perhaps more accurately, as medievalist Edwin Zeydel points out, vagantes.
For many years, the terms vagantes and Goliards were used interchangeably. In the most basic sense, they were itinerant students and clerics, who for a variety of reasons traveled the countryside, unattached to a particular monastery or university, but enjoying the rights and privileges of the clergy. Vagantes were not subject to the king’s taxes, could not be pressed into military service, could not be tried in a secular court and were “entitled to alms.” It’s much easier to be a penniless, vagabond poet, when one can wander without the threat of arrest. One could also wine and wench with debauched impunity. Which they did. Frequently. And they were immortalized in songs, sometimes of great beauty and tenderness, as in Dulcissime in which the narrator in the voice of a young woman says, “Sweetest boy, I give you all that I am.” Just as often they were peans to drunkenness, richly funny and marvelously witty.
What eventually separated the Goliards from the vagantes was the satirical poetry. Vagantes were not a bit shy about expressing their distaste for corruption in the church. The University of Paris reported:
“Priests and clerks … dance in the choir dressed as women … they sing wanton songs. They eat black pudding at the altar itself, while the celebrant is saying Mass. They play dice on the altar. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap throughout the church, without a blush of their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theaters in shabby carriages and carts, and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and with scurrilous and unchaste words!”
They sound a lot more like frat boys than scholars and priests. In the 13th century, the Church tired of their constant gadflying and revoked their clerical privileges. Eventually, the term “goliard” took on a derogatory implication and finally came to mean little more than a wandering minstrel, where once it had indicated an educated man. Meanwhile the poetry remained.
The poetry gives us a window into the past and insight into the minds and passions of people who lived 700 years ago. Their words are vibrant with life and Orff’s music unleashes them upon the ear with renewed immediacy. Of the 250 texts, Orff sets 24. To make them suitable for his purposes, he also shortened and rearranged some of them. In addition, Orff created his own “chapters” for the work: Early Spring (including a sub section, On the Green), In the Tavern and The Court of Love. These sections are book-ended by the potent “O Fortuna.” The music is immediately gripping and, although it sounds nothing like the music of the Goliards, captures the energy, vitality and timeless appeal of the originals.
Orff originally conceived of Carmina Burana as a staged work, although most of its performances in the United States are purely choral. While the intensity of the music loses nothing with a static presentation, it undermines Orff’s intent to link music to our primordial selves through dance and imagery. Eventually Carmina Burana became the first of a triptych of works entitled Trionfi. With the second and third pieces, Orff reaches even farther back into history, setting Roman and Greek texts. Orff said that he viewed ancient texts ... “as not old, but valid; the time element disappears and only the spiritual power remains.”
Orff was ultimately concerned with tapping into a kind of universality with his music. His Schulwerk is all about getting children to tap into the musicality innate within them, and Carmina Burana and all of his subsequent music plumbs the depths of human commonality. That audiences continue to respond with unfettered enthusiasm is proof of his success.