Pagliacci Synopsis

The Story of Leoncavallo's Famous Opera

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Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919)


May 21, 1892 - Teatro Dal Verme, Milan

Other Popular Opera Synopses:

Mozart's The Magic Flute, Mozart's Don Giovanni, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Verdi's Rigoletto, & Puccini's Madama Butterfly

Setting of Pagliacci:

Leoncavallo's Pagliacci takes place in Calabria, Italy during the 1860s.

The Story of Pagliacci

Pagliacci, Prologue

As the curtain rises, two mimes (Comedy and Tragedy) open a large trunk. Out of the trunk comes Tonio, the fool, dressed as Taddeo from the play, Commedia. Tonio addresses the audience to be mindful of the humanity of clowns, for they too, are real people who experience joy and sorrow.

Pagliacci, ACT 1

Under the bright noon sun, an acting troupe arrives in a small town in Calabria. The villagers eagerly await for the actors to exit their carriages and cheer at the first signs of movement. Canio, along with his wife Nedda, and two other actors, Beppe and Tonio, finally exit their carts and greet the crowds. Canio, head of the troupe, invites everyone to that night's show. In return, he and the cast are invited to the tavern for a few drinks. Canio and Beppe accept, but Tonio and Nedda decline. One of the villagers makes a joke that Tonio is only staying behind to seduce Nedda. All of a sudden, Canio becomes very serious and rebukes him. While his character, Pagliacci, in the play may act foolish, in real life, Canio is no fool. He will not stand idle while other men make passes at his wife. After the moment of tension passes, Canio and Beppe head to the tavern with the villagers.

Nedda, wiping sweat from her brow, is alone and overwhelmed with concern that her husband will find out about her unfaithfulness. She has been having a secret affair for quite some time now. Her nerves are calmed by the sounds of a lovely song bird. She eventually joins the bird in song and and sings about her freedom. Taking notice of her solitude carefree spirit, Tonio takes the opportunity to confess his love for her. Thinking he is in character, she happily plays along until she realizes he is serious. Denying his advances, she picks up a nearby bullwhip and frightens him away. Moments later, her lover, Silvio arrives from the tavern where he left Canio and Beppe, who were still drinking. Silvio begs for her to elope with him after the night's performance. At first, Nedda refuses. But when, Silvio gets angry, she finally agrees to run away with him. Tonio, who has been eavesdropping the entire time, runs to the tavern to get Canio. When they return, Canio hears Nedda singing about her elopement and he chases her lover away. Canio, unable to see the man's face, demands to know the name of her lover, but Nedda refuses. He threatens her with a nearby dagger, but Beppe talks him out of it and suggests they get ready for the performance. Tonio tells Canio not to worry, for surely, her lover will be at the play. Canio, now alone, sings the opera's most famous aria, the melancholy "Vesti la giubba" (Put on your costume) - Watch a youtube video of Vesti la giubba.

Pagliacci, ACT 2

Before the start of the play, Nedda dressed as her character, Colombina, takes money from the ticket buyers. The fervent crowd impatiently waits for the play to begin. The play nearly mirrors the real lives of the characters:

Colombina's husband, Pagliacci, is away. Underneath her window, her lover Arlechino (played by Beppe) serenades her. During his song, Taddeo returns from the market and confesses his love to her. She laughs as she helps Arlechino in through the window. Arlechino shoos him away as the crowd laughs. Arlechino gives her a sleeping potion. He tells her to give it to Pagliacci that night so she can run away with him and elope. She happily agrees. They are interrupted by Taddeo when he bursts into the room warning them that Pagliacci has become suspicious, and is about to return. Arlechino makes his escape out the window when Pagliacci enters the room. When Colombina delivers the same line Canio heard her say in real life hours before the play, he is reminded of the pain she has caused him and he demands to know the name of her lover. As to not break character and bring Canio back into the play, Colombina calls him refers to his stage name, Pagliacci. He answers that the white paint on his face is in fact not makeup, but is colorless because of the pain and shame she has brought to him. The crowd, moved by his life-like emotions, bursts into applause. Nedda tries again to bring him back into character, and confesses that she has been visited by Arlechino, a very nice young man. Canio, unable to return to the play, demands to know the name of her lover yet again. Finally, Nedda breaks character by swearing to never say her lover's name. The audience is now aware that the events taking place before them are, in fact, real, and Silvio pushes his way to the stage. Canio, driven mad by her adultery, stabs Nedda with a nearby knife. As she dies, she calls out to Silvio for help. The moment he steps onto the stage, Canio stabs him too. As they lay lifeless on the stage floor, Canio delivers one of opera's most chilling lines, "The comedy is over."