Major Operas | Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo | Turn of the Century


Composed: 1892
Premiered: 1892, Milan
Libretto by the composer, based on a newspaper crime report


Tonio addresses the audience. The author has sent him to explain that they are to see real people and real passions.

Act I

A troupe of four travelling players arrives in a Calabrian village. They are led by Canio, with his wife Nedda, Tonio and Beppe. The crowd greets them enthusiastically. Canio promises a splendid entertainment at 11 o’clock. Canio and Beppe accept the offer of a drink at the tavern. Tonio says he will stay to groom the donkey. Canio reacts to a villager’s joke by saying that the stage and real life are different. If Nedda were to cheat on him he would not react as his stage character Pagliaccio does. Nedda fears Canio’s anger. She envies the freedom of the birds. Tonio is watching her. He tries to explain that he has fallen under her spell. She laughs at him. As he advances she strikes him with a whip. He leaves, threatening revenge.

Nedda’s lover, Silvio, urges her to elope with him at midnight. His increasing passion breaks down her defences until she admits she loves him. Tonio has returned. She declares that she gives herself wholly to Silvio. As they kiss passionately and Silvio leaves, Tonio brings on Canio to watch. Canio demands to know her lover’s name and threatens her with a knife. Beppe rushes on and seizes the knife. It is time to get dressed for the performance. Canio tells himself he has to become Pagliaccio and make the audience laugh, even if his heart is breaking.

Act II

The villagers are fighting for the best places beside the stage. Nedda sees Silvio arrive. At last the audience is quiet. Nedda, dressed as Columbine, hears Harlequin (Beppe) serenading her. She rejects the attentions of the servant Taddeo (Tonio). Harlequin throws him out and gives Columbine a drug to make Pagliaccio sleep so they can elope. Harlequin escapes as Pagliaccio enters. As Nedda tries to keep the play on course, Canio is unable to separate the play from real life. The crowd cheers his acting, but he is now out of control, demanding her lover’s name or her life. She refuses to tell him and Canio stabs her. She calls for Silvio, who rushes to the stage and is also killed. Canio announces that ‘the comedy is over’.

Personalities | Ruggero Leoncavallo | Turn of the Century | Opera


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