Pagliacci (Clowns) is an opera in two acts written and composed by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. It is the tragedy of a jealous husband in a commedia dell'Arte troupe. It premiered in Milan in 1892, and it is Leoncavallo's only successful opera. Since 1893 it has usually been performed in a so-called "Cav and Pag" double bill with Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. The title is sometimes incorrectly rendered I pagliacci (The Clowns). Pagliacci is the 14th most performed opera in North America according to Opera America.
Around 1890, when Cavalleria Rusticana premiered, Leoncavallo was a little-known composer. After seeing Cav's success, he decided to write a similar opera. It was to be one act long and composed in the verismo style. Most modern-day critics say that the libretto was inspired by an 1887 play of Catulle Mendès entitled La Femme de Tabarin. Leoncavallo was living in Paris at the time of the premiere, and it is likely that he saw the play.
However, Leoncavallo insisted that the plot of the opera was based on a true story he had witnessed as a child. He claimed that a servant had taken him to a commedia performance in which the events of the opera had actually occurred. He also claimed that his father, who was a judge, had led the criminal investigation, and that he had documents supporting these claims. None of this evidence has ever appeared, and most critics believe that Leoncavallo was trying to make the opera seem more realistic.
Pagliacci was an instant success and it remains popular today. It contains one of opera's most famous and popular arias, Recitar! ... Vesti la giubba. (To perform! ... Put on the costume) One of Enrico Caruso's recordings of Vesti la giubba was the first record to sell one million copies. In 1907, Pagliacci became the first entire opera to be recorded.
The main characters are actors in a travelling commedia dell'Arte troupe.
The orchestra consists of 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 1 Basset-horn, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, 2 harps, timpani, tubular bells, percussion, and strings. Additionally, there is an onstage violin, oboe, trumpet, and bass drum.
The story is set in Calabria, near Montalto, on the Feast of the Assumption, between 1865 and 1870.
During the overture, the curtain rises. From behind a second curtain, Tonio, dressed as his commedia character Taddeo, addresses the audience. (Si può?... Si può?... Signore! Signori!) He reminds the audience that actors have feelings too, and that the show is about real humans.
At three o'clock in the afternoon, the commedia troupe enters the village, and the villagers cheer. Canio describes the night's performance: The troubles of Pagliaccio. As Nedda steps down from the cart, Tonio offers his hand, but Canio pushes him aside and helps her down himself. The villagers suggest drinking at the tavern. Canio and Beppe accept, but Tonio stays behind. The villagers tease Canio that Tonio is planning an affair with Nedda. Canio warns everyone that while he may act the foolish husband in the play, in real life he will not tolerate other men making advances to Nedda. Shocked, a villager asks if Canio really suspects her. He says no, and sweetly kisses her on the forehead. As the church bells ring vespers, he and Beppe leave for the tavern, and Nedda is left alone.
Nedda, who is cheating on Canio, is frightened by Canio's vehemence, but the birdsong comforts her. Tonio returns and confesses his love for her, but she laughs. Enraged, Tonio begins to grab her, but she takes a whip, strikes him, and drives him off. Silvio, who is Nedda's lover, comes from the tavern, where he has left Canio and Beppe drinking. He asks Nedda to elope with him after the performance, and though she is afraid, she agrees. Tonio, who has been eavesdropping, leaves to get Canio. They return, and as Silvio escapes, Nedda calls after him, "I will always be yours!"
Canio chases Silvio but does not catch him and does not see his face. He demands that Nedda tell him the name of her lover, but she refuses. He threatens her with a knife, but Beppe disarms him. Beppe insists that they prepare for the performance. Tonio tells Canio that her lover will surely give himself away at the play. Canio is left alone to put on his costume and prepare to laugh. (Vesti la giubba)
As the crowd arrives, Nedda, costumed as Colombina, collects their money. She whispers a warning to Silvio, and the crowd cheers as the play begins.
Colombina's husband Pagliaccio has gone away until morning, and Taddeo is at the market. She anxiously awaits her lover Arlecchino, who soon serenades her from beneath her window. Taddeo returns and confesses his love, but she mocks him and lets in Arlecchino through the window. He boxes Taddeo's ears and kicks him out of the room, and the audience laughs.
Arlecchino and Colombina dine, and he delivers a sleeping potion. When Pagliaccio returns, she plans to drug him and elope with Arlecchino. Taddeo bursts in, warning that Pagliaccio is suspicious of his wife and is about to return. As Arlecchino escapes through the window, Colombina tells him, "I will always be yours!"
As Canio enters, he hears Nedda and exclaims, "Name of God! Those same words!" He tries to continue the play but loses control and demands to know her lover's name. Nedda, hoping to continue the play, tells him it is Pagliaccio, but he proclaims that he is no clown and he loves her dearly. (No! Pagliaccio non son!) The crowd, impressed by his emotional performance, cheers him.
Nedda, trying again to continue the play, admits that her lover is Arlecchino. Canio, furious, demands the name or her life, but she swears she will never tell him, and the crowd realizes they are not acting. Silvio begins to fight his way toward the stage. Canio, grabbing a knife from the table, stabs Nedda. As she dies she calls, "Help! Silvio!" Canio stabs Silvio and declares, "The commedia is over!"
Pagliacci in popular culture