I Pagliacci is an Italian Opera
in two acts. The composer, Ruggiero Leoncavallo
, also wrote the libretto
. It first premiered in 1892
. It's a rather confusing opera, utilizing a complex play within a play
that mirrors the action of the play outside the play. It is still a very good opera, highly critically acclaimed
It starts out with a prologue sung by the same actor who will sing Tonio in the course of the opera. The prologue is about the face behind the mask of an actor. The tears you may see on stage and laugh at are real, the pain portrayed coming from wells of real pain, the laughter coming from the actor's own past experiences of joy. The author of the opera has chosen to write about actors, who suffer the same problems as everybody else.
The first act begins with a travelling troupe arrive on the outskirts of an Italian town. Canio, the head of the company and the man who will play Pagliacci in their comedy, tells the townspeople about what the troupe will perform. Somebody joking suggests that Tonio, the hunchback who plays Taddeo, is in love with Nedda, Canio's wife.
Canio isn't amused by the joke, showing that he is a very jealous husband as he warns that he will not tolerate anybody flirting with Nedda. Nedda and Tonio both are obviously quite annoyed by these goings-on. This tense scene is interrupted by the vespers bell, at which time the women go to church and the men go to the tavern. (Typical, isn't it?)
Nedda doesn't go to directly to church, but remains alone for a time. She sings an aria expressing how she dislikes her husband's jealousy, and envies the freedom of a bird soaring overhead. Her solitude is interrupted by the entrance of Tonio, who tries to court her affections. She is repulsed, and scorns him. He tries to take her anyway but she gets a whip and drives him off. She succeeds, but he vows vengeance.
It turns out that Nedda is unfaithful, with a villager named Silvio. He arrives and persuades her to run away with him at midnight. Tonio, who had been hidden from their sight, dashes off to tell Canio and wreak his vengeance. Canio comes bursting in, but Sylvio escapes in time. He demands that Nedda tell him her lover's name, but she refuses. He threatens her with a knife, but she still won't cave in, and Beppe (another of the troupe) has to restrain him.
Once alone, Canio breaks down and weeps. Even though his heart is breaking, he has to play a clown that evening.
Act Two begins, and the villagers gather for the play. Nedda plays Columbine, who is unfaithful to her husband Pagliacci (played by Canio) with Arlecchino (played by Beppe). When Pagliacci returns home, Arlecchino slips out the window just in time. Taddeo (their servant, played by Tonio) assures Pagliacci of Columbine's faithfulness.
Unable to remain within the play, Canio demands of Nedda what her lover's name is once more. She falters, and tries to continue with the script. The audience applauds the realism of the acting, unaware that it is now real. Enraged, Canio stabs Nedda, and Sylvio rushes out of the crowd to save her. He whirls and stabs Sylvio as well, and then turns to look at the horrified crowd. The last line of the opera is his line, "La commedia e finito".
The Comedy is Over.