Nedda’s aria “Stridono lassu” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci

In Pagliacci, Leoncavallo has written an opera where all of the principals are blameworthy, yet all of them engage our sympathy to some degree. Whatever her faults, Nedda remains true to herself in the face of death. If her ballatella (a narrative folksong with dance) were simply what she tells us it is—a song about birds remembered from her mother’s singing—it would be a trivial interruption of the plot. In fact, this aria establishes her lust for freedom and her indomitable defiance.

The initial words of the recitative refer back to Canio’s threatening and jealous outburst in his aria “Un tal gioco,” the tune that is heard beneath her line. Here, the equal note-values of the two syllables of “guardo” mislead some singers into giving equal weight to the two syllables; actually, it is the first that should be stressed. When Nedda speaks of her “secret thought,” the orchestra sounds the motif associated with Silvio, and the singer may invest the words “pensier segreto” with an erotic coloring. Let us be honest: Nedda courts danger and probably enjoys the idea of thinking of her lover in the presence of her husband.

In any language, certain inarticulate noises are indicated by certain conventional spellings. (For instance, in English, “ahem” is understood to be the sound of throat-clearing and “atchoo” the sound of a sneeze.) In the phrase “Oh! se mi sorprendesse,” the “oh” need not be a pure, recognizable vowel, but rather the expression of fear and revulsion—the vocal equivalent of a shudder. At the end of the initial andante con moto, take care to avoid doubling the “l” in the word “fole” (fables, fairytales). Many mistake the word for a misspelling of “folle,” meaning “mad,” but if this were the case, since it would modify “sogni,” it could not take the singular ending “e.” (Also note that Nedda uses “fole” again following rehearsal number 30.) I make a special point of this because the word is misspelled “folle” in some aria books.

Nedda tells us that she learned her song from her mother. Is this information gratuitous? The one thing we learn about Nedda’s mother is that she “used to tell fortunes.” Is it possible that her mother was a Gypsy? In any case, Nedda will invoke her mother again—and at a most crucial point. When Canio threatens to kill her unless she identifies her lover, Nedda defies him thus: “No, by my mother! Maybe I am unworthy or whatever you want to call me, but I am not a coward!” Nedda apparently associates fierce independence with the memory of her mother. No wonder “Stridono lassù,” her mother’s song, has such significance to her.

Trapped in a marriage with a jealous husband who she has come to dislike and fear, Nedda sees the birds as a metaphor for the freedom for which she longs. We may believe that the activity of the birds results merely from instinct. Nedda, however, persistently imagines that the birds act with conscious intention. In the first section of the aria, the birds are “defying” clouds and burning sun. Their need is expressed as physical desire—they are “thirsty” for blue and light. But a major change of mood, accompanied by a strongly contrasting tonality, follows: Nedda would have us believe that the birds are also pursuing a poetic ideal—“a dream, a chimera.” Thus in fact, to Nedda, the birds justify her affair with Silvio as the search for beauty and freedom—not just physical gratification. Here, despite the relentless rhythm of the piece, Nedda’s tone of voice should soften. The broad, soaring phrases of the final page will pay even greater tribute to the birds as seekers of the ineffable.

This final part of the aria is taxing. There is little time to breathe, and much is demanded of the “break” notes. But many singers make the passage more difficult than need be. The fermata on the second syllable of “seguon,” while not notated, is traditional, and the dissonance of the non-harmonic tone G-sharp in this high register is undeniably exciting. Forgetting to retake the tempo vigorously following the fermata, however, risks making the following bars unnecessarily heavy. Some editions have the marking “col canto” under the final A-sharp, suggesting that the singer will hold it past its written value.

The critical edition published by Sonzogno brings welcome news, however: the marking is inauthentic. This information removes the problem of coordinating the cutoff: both voice and accompaniment should simply proceed in time. In fact, the notated value is quite long enough! The lower notes of the leaps “e van!” are often approximated. It will help if the singer remembers that these pitches belong to the harmony of the note before, not the note following.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a highly respected New York coach, particularly known for helping singers with difficult and unfamiliar scores.