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22 September 2007

Commedia finito!

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Teresa Stratas as Nedda.
Enrico Caruso as Canio.
Somebody call the cops.

(From Sandy Steiglitz's Opera Gallery.)

Opera is just exactly the same crap everybody seems to have to put up with in life -- but for two hours in a dark theater, you can be tricked into the illusion that horrible romantic troubles, poverty and hunger, tuberculosis, freezing winters without heat, police brutality and horrible cruelty and injustice can be wrapped in beauty and dignity. A violent kitchen argument can sound so beautiful that you want to put on your best clothes and pay $80 to hear and see the argument again.

Okay. He's a vain, jealous old man. Like a total jerk, he fell so hard for an illiterate teenage slut that he married her. They tour the countryside as clowns putting on a cheesy Punch and Judy show to entertain the hicks. Since the wedding, she has not exactly reformed. Her favorite kind of sex is backstage with handsome young guys in the troupe, so the old man can hear them laughing and going at it.

Ordinarily this tawdry, disgusting human-nature catastrophe would end up as a crime story I would have had to report on for the newspaper after the cops and the medical examiner cleaned up the mess.

But once, they didn't give this disaster to the local crime reporter. They gave it to a pretty talented opera composer. Leoncavallo claimed that this really happened in his little Italian town when he was a kid. While the happy rustic peasants were laughing and eating il popcorno and watching Punch and Judy and Harlequin and Pierot smash each other over the head with whoopie cushions and clubs, and strangle each other, the old clown was really jealous and he was really angry and he pulled out a knife and -- well, you can guess the rest. When it finally dawned on the audience that the dead clowns all over the stage were really dead, the knife wasn't made of rubber, and that wasn't pizza sauce flying all over the place, the crazed old clown stared at them and announced:

Commedia finito!

Probably the way I have just described it doesn't make you want to go out and buy tickets; you probably would rather flee as far and fast as you could from this low-rent trailer park disaster. You'd be making a mistake. It's one of the most powerful and gripping emotional experiences a human being can have. It made Leoncavallo so rich and famous, he regretted having written it; nobody ever wanted to hear much of anything else he wrote afterwards.

Franco Zeffirelli filmed "Pagliacci" in 1982. Plácido Domingo is the fat old clown Canio, and Teresa Stratas is Nedda the nympho teen. If there's ever been a more explosive, inflammatory Nedda or a more gripping production, I don't know about it. It's easy to find it on DVD, and Zeffirelli is renowned for his visually gorgeous films.

Before the iPod and the mp3 there was the CD and the Walkman, before that the 33 1/3 vinyl analog LP record, before that the squawky bakelite 78, and before that ... well, "Pagliacci" hit the repertoire just in time for an amazing new gizmo, the Edison phonograph or gramaphone, the first machine that could capture the human voice and the sounds of musical instruments so you could hear them again and again, whenever you wanted to, at home. Before this machine, all beauty that came from musicians and singers -- well, you had to hear it in the theater, or it was lost forever. (The only exception was the player piano, invented around 1840.)

In 1902, the phonograph company's talent agent found an unknown young tenor who'd never been out of Italy before, and paid him about $100 to shout about 20 opera tunes into the primitive sound-collecting horn, backed by the most skeleton accompaniement -- here just a pianist. Headquarters in London thought the fee was so outrageous, they sent telegrams to order the agent to cancel the deal, but it was too late, and Enrico Caruso sang the tunes and the company released them on phonograph cylinders. It was the perfect collision of time, invention, and beauty -- the voice of a lifetime preserved on the machine of the century. Sales of the new home music machine exploded all over the world.

Here is Caruso as the outraged old clown, just before the final scene, sitting in front of his mirror trying to put on his makeup and his clown suit. The show must go on, and it's the clown's job to laugh, so he's screaming at the mirror, ordering himself to smile and laugh. Turn MUTE OFF and check this out.

Caruso's squawky old phonograph recordings were the first archival music to be digitized -- translated from analog signals into billions of zeros and ones -- and from there cleaned up and brought forward from the hopeless machine of 1902 to the hi-tek audio world of 1980 by computer and mathematical techniques. But cleaned up or squawky, this was the voice and the sensibility of a lifetime.

Terrible old technology can't disguise the wonder of a great singer; the phonograph and the 1930 jukebox can't harm or hide the art and magic and power of Caruso and Billie Holiday.

And all the software at the Jet Propulsion Lab at Cal Tech can't turn Britney Spears into a good singer.

1 comment:

Jim Olson said...

Kewl. I've always wanted to sing Canio.