Saturday, April 11, 2009

Perché Vesti La Giubba?

Hypothetical question asker! I never knew you were bilingual.

Vesti La Giubba is the famous aria from Pagliacci, the well known opera written by the obscure composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo. It's not fair to call Leoncavallo a one hit wonder. He's more like a half hit wonder. While he wrote a lot of operas, Pagliacci gets performed more than all the rest combined, which is unusual success for a two act opera. Since opera goers expect several hours entertainment when they buy their tickets, Pagliacci is always part of a double bill, usually with La Cavalleria Rusticana, written by another half-hit wonder composer, Mascagni.

While Leoncavallo never hit the heights of glory that Verdi or Puccini did, there is absolutely no question that Pagliacci is a cultural touchstone. It's mentioned in the lyrics of the standard from the American songbook (I'm Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over, and likewise in the Smokey Robinson/Stevie Wonder classic Tears of a Clown. The hit from the 1950's Mr. Sandman hopes for a cross between Pagliacci and Liberace. (Hint to the ladies: You really don't want either part of that.) Pagliacci is mentioned in movies as far apart in time and type as Singin' In The Rain and Watchmen. On TV, Tony Soprano complains to his therapist about having to be the sad clown and Cesar Romero as The Joker lip-synchs Vesti La Giubba on the 60s TV show Batman. Of all the cultural references, Crazy Joe Davola on Seinfeld may be the only one who saw the opera, as his version of the sad clown Canio is much more menacing, not to give too much of the plot away.

But as to hypothetical question asker's first question, "Why Vesti La Giubba?" Why is this aria and the opera it comes from still famous to the general public in a way other operas better known to the opera going public aren't?

The answer may be in this little piece of trivia. Enrico Caruso (pictured above) recorded Vesti La Giubba in 1907 and it became the first record to sell one million copies. The aria and opera are riding that high crest from over a century ago to this day.

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