The opera, "I Pagliacci" (The Actors), begins with a Prologue sung by Tonio in front of the curtain. The author, Tonio tells, loves the custom of a prologue, and has sent him to explain that the subject of his work is a chapter out of the book of life -- a true story. The actor, though clad in motley and tinsel, is a man with a heart like his auditor; a man with the same passions, the same capacity for gladness and sorrow, the same broad heaven above him and the same wide lonely world before him. Then he gives the sign to raise the curtain.
ACT 1. -- The characters in the story are a troupe of strolling players, called Pagliacci, such as are often seen in Italian villages. They tour the country, going from fair to fair, playing in any available theatre the story of Columbine, Harlequin, and Punchinello, to an audience of admiring peasants. The Act begins with the arrival of one of these troupes in a village in Calabria at the time of the Feast of the Virgin di Mezzagosto. The scene is the entrance of the village, where two roads meet. On the right is a rustic theatre. As the curtain rises, sounds of a drum and of a trumpet out of tune are heard. Laughing, shouting, whistling voices are approaching. Villagers enter in holiday attire. Tonio looks up the road on the left, then, worried by the staring crowd, lies down in front of the theatre. It is a bright sunny day, and the time is three oclock.
While the peasants sing a chorus of welcome to the players the troupe come on. Canio, the chief actor, invites the crowd to attend the performance at seven the same evening. Tonio advances to help Nedda down from the cart, but Canio, who has already alighted, boxes his ears, and, taking Nedda in his arms, lifts her out himself. Beppe drags away the donkey cart, and Tonio, chaffed by the boys, retires grumbling behind the theatre. Some of the villagers then ask Canio to drink with them at the tavern. Beppe reappears and agrees to join the party, but when Canio invites Tonio he replies that he has "to clean the donkey"; he will follow later. A peasant in jest bids Canio beware lest Tonio make love to his wife during his absence. Thereupon Canio declares solemnly that such a game is hardly worth the playing, for the stage and life are not the same. If in a play he caught Nedda with a lover, he would get into a passion, and then probably allow the lover to beat him while the people applauded. But if his wife should deceive him in earnest the ending would be different. When the crowd exclaim, "But surely you dont suspect her!" he answers, "No, of course not; I love and respect her!" and going up to Nedda, he kisses her, and then disappears.
Now more villagers enter with pipers. After the Bell Chorus, they all go off to vespers, leaving Nedda alone. At first she is afraid that Canio suspects her of having a lover; soon, however, she dismisses the idea, and revels in the glorious sunshine, the beauties of nature, and the song of the birds, which seem to respond to the pulsing of her restless heart. Finishing her song, she discovers that Tonio has been listening. He seizes the opportunity of declaring his passion, and when she laughs at him, and finally strikes him in the face with a whip as he is trying to kiss her, he vows he will have his revenge, and goes off. Presently Neddas lover, Silvio, steals in and entreats her to fly with him. She refuses, and bids him not to tempt her. He continues, nevertheless, to plead his cause, and so eloquently that at last she gives way, and promises to go him that night for ever.
Tonio, who has been spying on her, and has gone away to inform her husband of her treachery, returns with Canio just as the lovers are saying farewell. Canio, furious with jealousy, rushes after Silvio, but is too late to catch him. Returning to Nedda he demands the traitors name. She absolutely refuses to divulge it, though he draws a dagger from his belt and is about to kill her. At this point Beppe, running in, snatches the knife from him. At Beppes call, Tonio comes to help him to calm their master. Beppe then takes Nedda into the theatre, while Tonio comforts Canio with the assurance that the gallant will return -- perhaps come to the play to-night. Beppe once more appears, and, bidding Canio get ready for the performance, goes away with Tonio. Alone, Canio cries out in despair. How can he act a comedy, with tragedy in his heart! Then with bitter cynicism he addresses himself:
Thou art not a man, thourt but a jester!
On with the motley, and the paint, and the powder!
The people pay thee, and want their laugh, you know!
If Harlequin thy Columbine has stolen, laugh Punchinello!
The world will cry, "Bravo!"
At last, sobbing as if his heart would break, he moves slowly towards the theatre, pushes the curtain roughly as if not wishing to enter, and burying his face in his hands, pauses for a moment to recover himself; then, with a sudden rush, disappears behind the curtains.
ACT 2. -- It is the evening of the same day. Beppe comes from behind blowing a trumpet; Tonio, following with the big drum, takes up his position on the left of the theatre. People come from all directions to the play, and Beppe arranges the benches for the women, who quarrel about their seats. Meantime the peasants sing a chorus descriptive of their rush for places, and their impatience for the actors to begin. Nedda goes round with a plate to collect the money, and Silvio, who is among the audience, manages to remind her quietly of to-nights rendezvous. At last the curtain is drawn aside, and the play within a play begins.
The scene represents a little room, with two side doors, a window at the back, and a table and two chairs on the right. By a strange coincidence the play happens to be a burlesque of all that has taken place in the first Act.
Columbine (Nedda) is seated near the table; rising, she walks about restlessly, as if expecting some one. Punchinello (Canio), her husband, she tells, will not be home till morning, while Taddeo (Tonio), the servant, is at market. Hearing the sound of a guitar off the stage, she rushes to the window with a cry of joy. Harlequin, behind, serenades her. Then Taddeo peeps through the door and watches Columbine, meanwhile singing a trill and roulade in mock tragic style, at which the peasants laugh. He thinks his opportunity has come to confess to his mistress that he adores her, so he makes her ware of his presence by a long and exaggerated sigh. In the middle of his declaration, Harlequin, at a signal from Columbine, jumps in through the window, puts a bottle down, and taking Taddeo by the ear, just when he says, "Must I forsake thee?" answers, "Yes, or Ill make thee." "What," exclaims Taddeo, "you love her? Then I must hand her over!" He goes out blessing the pair and promising to watch over them. Columbine now sets the table for supper, Harlequin adding the bottle of wine he has brought with him, and they sit down to enjoy themselves. Presently Harlequin takes out a little phial he has had concealed about him, and giving it to Columbine, asks her to put its contents in her husbands wine, and fly with him. Taddeo at this point warns the pair that the husband is near, that he has discovered all, and is stamping with rage. He at once goes off by the door on the left; and as Harlequin is escaping by the window, he reminds Columbine of the philter, while she bids him good-night in the exact same words she had used to Silvio, "To-night, love, and for ever, I shall be thine!"
Punchinello (Canio) enters in time to hear the last words, and exclaiming aside, "God, am I dreaming? What she said this morning!" he advances to play his part. He asks Columbine who has been with her. When she replies, "No one but Taddeo," and brings the old servant out of his hiding-place to testify to her fidelity, he still insists that she has a lover and must reveal his name. Nedda makes light of the matter, and calls out "Punchinello! Punchinello!" in a jocular manner. But he is not to be put off. He declares that he is no longer Punchinello; he is a man again, with a heart crying for vengeance. Recalling the love he once bore his wife and his trust in her honour. Canio falls on the chair by the table overwhelmed with emotion, saying, "What have I now but a heart that is broken?" The audience are delighted with his wonderful acting, and when he continues in the same passionate strain, finally telling his wife, "Thou hadst my love, but now thou hast my hate and scorn!" they shout "Bravo!" with enthusiasm.
By this time Nedda has begun to be afraid of her husband. She tries to resume the play with a forced smile. This only increases Canios rage, and when he once more demands her lovers name and she again refuses, he becomes so excited that the peasants wonder if he is in earnest, and call out to that effect. Nedda continues to defy him, and though he threatens to kill her, she will not give up her secret. At last, frantic with jealous rage, he rushes at her and stabs her to the heart. With her dying breath she calls to Silvio for help. Now Canio knows his betrayer, and as Silvio runs towards the stage he, too, receives his death-blow from the same hands. The spectators cry out in terror, "Stop him! Arrest him!" Then Canio, in a state of collapse, lets his knife fall, and gasps out -- "The comedy is ended!"