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Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > I Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) - Synopsis

I Pagliacci -
(English title: The Clowns)
An Opera by Ruggiero Leoncavallo

Opera in two acts, wordd and music by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. Produced, Teatro dal Verme, Milan, May 17, 1892. Grand Opera House, New York, June 15, 1893, under the direction of Gustav Hinrichs, with Selma Kronold (Nedda), Montegriffo (Canio), and Campanari (Tonio). Metropolitan Opera House, December 11, 1893, with Melba as Nedda, De Lucia as Canio, and Ancona as Tonio.


CANIO (in the play Pagliaccio), head of a troupe of strolling players… Tenor
NEDDA (in the play Columbine), wife of Canio…………………….. Soprano
TONIO (in the play Taddeo, a clown) ………………………………. Baritone
BEPPE (in the play Harlequin)……………………………………….. Tenor
SILVIO, a villager……………………………………………………. Baritone

Place: Montalto, in Calabria.
Time: The Feast of the Assumption, about 1865-70.

"Pagliacci" opens with a prologue. There is an instrumental introduction. Then Tonio pokes his head through the curtains, -- "Si puo? Signore e Signori" (By your leave, Ladies and Gentlemen), -- comes out, and sings. The prologue rehearses, or at least hints at, the story of the opera, and does so in musical phrases, which we shall hear again as the work progresses -- the bustle of the players as they make ready for the performance; Canio’s lament that he must be merry before his audiences, though his heart be breaking; part of the lovemaking music between Nedda and Silvio; and the theme of the intermezzo, to the broad measures of which Tonio sings, "Evo piuttosto che le nostre povere gabbane" (Ah, think then, sweet people, when you behold us clad in our motley).

The prologue, in spite of ancient prototypes, was a bold stroke on the part of Leoncavallo, and, as the result proved, a successful one. Besides its effectiveness in the opera, it has made a good concert number. Moreover, it is quite unlikely that without it Maurel would have offered to play Tonio at the production of the work in Milan.

Act I. The edge of the village of Montalto, Calabria. People are celebrating the Feast of the Assumption. In the background is the tent of the strolling players. These players, Canio, Nedda, Tonio, and Beppe, in the costume of their characters in the play they are to enact, are parading through the village.

The opening chorus, "Son qua" (They’re here), proclaims the innocent joy with which the village hails the arrival of the players. The beating of a drum, the blare of a trumpet are heard. The players, having finished their parade through the village, are returning to their tent. Beppe, in his Harlequin costume, enters leading a donkey drawing a gaudily painted cart, in which Nedda is reclining. Behind her, in his Pagliaccio costume, is Canio, beating the big drum and blowing the trumpet. Tonio, dressed as Taddeo, the clown, brings up her rear. The scene is full of life and gayety.

Men, women, and boys, singing sometimes in separate groups, sometimes together, form the chorus. The rising inflection in their oft-repeated greeting to Canio as "il principe se dei Pagliacci" (the prince of Pagliaccios), adds materially to the lilt of joy in their greeting to the players whose coming performance they evidently regard as the climax to the festival.

Canio addresses the crowd. At seven o’clock the play will begin. They will witness the troubles of poor Pagliaccio, and the vengeance he wreaked on the Clown, a treacherous fellow. 'Twill be a strange combination of love and of hate.

Again the crowd acclaims its joy at the prospect of seeing the players on the stage behind the flaps of the tent.

Tonio comes forward to help Nedda out of the cart. Canio boxes his ears, and lifts Nedda down himself. Tonio, jeered at by the women and boys, angrily shakes his fists at the youngsters, and goes off muttering that Canio will have to pay high for what he has done. Beppe leads off the donkey with the cart, comes back, and throws down his whip in front of the tent. A villager asks Canio to drink at the tavern. Beppe joins them. Canio calls to Tonio. Is he coming with them? Tonio replies that he must stay behind to groom the donkey. A villager suggests that Tonio is remaining in order to make love to Nedda. Canio takes the intended humour of this sally rather grimly. He says that in the play, when he interferes with Tonio’s lovemaking, he lays himself open to a beating. But in real life -- let any one, who would try to rob him of Nedda’s love, beware. The emphasis with which he speaks causes comment.

"What can he mean?" asks Nedda in an aside.

"Surely you don’t suspect her?" question the villagers of Canio.

Of course not, protests, Canio, and kisses Nedda on the forehead.

Just then the bagpipers from a neighbouring village are heard approaching. The musicians, followed by the people of their village, arrive to join in the festival. All are made welcome, and the villagers, save a few who are waiting for Canio and Beppe, go off down the road toward the village. The church bells ring. The villagers sing the pretty chorus, "Din, don -- suona vespero" (Ding, dong -- the vespers bell). Canio nods good-bye to Nedda. He and Beppe go toward the village.

Nedda is alone. Canio’s words and manner worry her. "How fierce he looked and watched me! -- Heavens, if he should suspect me!" But the birds are singing, the birds, whose voices her mother understood. Her thoughts go back to her childhood. She sings, "Oh! Che volo d’angelli" (Ah, ye beautiful song-birds), which leads up to her vivacious ballatella, "Stridono lassu, liberamente" (Forever flying through the boundless sky).

Tonio comes on from behind the theatre. He makes violent love to Nedda. The more passionately the clown pleads, the more she mocks him, and the more angry he grows. He seeks forcibly to grasp and kiss her. She backs away from him. Spying the whip where Beppe threw it down, she seizes it, and with its strikes Tonio across the face. Infuriated, he threatens, as he leaves her, that he will yet be avenged on her.

A man leans over the wall. He calls in a low voice, "Nedda!"

"Silvio!" she cries. "At this hour. . . what madness!" He assures her that it is safe for them to meet. He has just left Canio drinking at the tavern. She cautions him that, if he had been a few moment earlier, his presence would have been discovered by Tonio. He laughs at the suggestion of danger from a clown.

Silvio has come to secure the promise of the woman he loves, and who has pledged her love to him, that she will run away with him from her husband after the performance that night. She does not consent at once, not because of any moral scruples, but because she is afraid. After a little persuasion, however, she yields. The scene reaches its climax in an impassioned love duet, "E allor perchè, di’, tu mai stregato" (Why hast thou taught me Love’s magic story). The lovers prepare to separate, but agree not to do so until after the play, when they are to meet and elope.

The jealous and vengeful Tonio has overheard them, and has run to the tavern to bring back Canio. He comes just in time to hear Nedda call after Silvio, who has climbed the wall, "Tonight, love, and forever I am thine."

Canio, with drawn dagger, makes a rush to overtake and stay the man, who was with his wife. Nedda places herself between him and the wall, but he thrusts her violently aside, leaps the wall, and starts in pursuit. "May Heaven protect him now," prays Nedda for her lover, while Tonio chuckles.

The fugitive has been too swift for Canio. The latter returns.

"His name!" he demands of Nedda, for he does not know who her lover is. Nedda refuses to give it. Silvio is safe! What matter what happens to her. Canio rushes at her to kill her. Tonio and Beppe restrain him. Tonio whispers to him to wait. Nedda’s lover surely will be at the play. A look, or gesture from her will betray him. Then Canio can wreak vengeance. Canio thinks well of Tonio’s ruse. Nedda escapes into the theatre.

It is time to prepare for the performance. Beppe and Tonio retire to do so.

Canio’s grief over his betrayal by Nedda finds expression in one of the most famous numbers in modern Italian opera, "Vesti la giubba" (Now don the motley), with its tragic "Ridi Pagliaccio" (Laugh thou, Pagliaccio), as Canio goes toward the tent, and enters it. It is the old and ever effective story of the buffoon who must laugh, and make others laugh, while his heart is breaking.

Act II. The scene is the same as that of the preceding act. Tonio with the big drum takes his position at the left angle of the theatre. Beppe places benches for the spectators, who begin to assemble, while Tonio beats the drum. Silvio arrives and nods to friends. Nedda, dressed as Columbine, goes about with a plate and collects money. As she approaches Silvio, she pauses to speak a few words of warning to him, then goes on, and re-enters the theatre with Beppe. The brisk chorus becomes more insistent that the play begin. Most of the women are seated. Others stand with the men on slightly rising ground.

A bell rings loudly. The curtain of the tent theatre on the stage rises. The mimic scene represents a small room with two side doors and a practicable windows at the back. Nedda, as Columbine, is walking about expectantly and anxiously. Her husband, Pagliaccio, has gone away till morning. Taddeo is at the market. She awaits her lover, Arlecchino (Harlequin). A dainty minuet forms the musical background.

A guitar is heard outside. Columbine runs to the window with signs of love and impatience. Harlequin, outside, sings his pretty serenade to his Columbine, "O Colombina, il tenero" (O Columbine, unbar to me thy lattice high).

The ditty over, she returns to the front of the mimic stage, seats herself, back the door, through which Tonio, as Taddeo, a basket on his arm, now enters. He makes exaggerated love to Columbine, who disgusted with his advances, goes to the window, opens it, and signals. Beppe as Harlequin, enters by the window. He makes light of Taddeo, whom he takes by the ear and turns out of the room, to the accompaniment of a few kicks. All the while the minuet has tripped its pretty measure and the mimic audience has found plenty to amuse it.

Harlequin has brought a bottle of wine, also a phial with a sleeping potion, which she is to give her husband, when opportunity offers, so that, while he sleeps, she and Harlequin may fly together. Love appears to prosper, till, suddenly, Taddeo bursts in. Columbine’s husband, Pagliaccio, is approaching. He suspects her, and is stamping with anger. "Pour the philtre in his wine, love!" admonishes Harlequin, and hurriedly gets out through the window.

Columbine calls after him, just as Canio, in the character of Pagliaccio, appears in the door, "Tonight, love, and forever, I am thine!" -- the same words Canio heard his wife call after her lover a few hours before.

Columbine parries Pagliaccio’s questions. He has returned too early. He has been drinking. No one was with her, save harmless Taddeo, who has become alarmed and has sought safety in the closet. From within, Taddeo expostulates with Pagliaccio. His wife is true, her pious lips would ne’er deceive her husband. The audience laughs.

But now it no longer is Pagliaccio, it is Canio, who calls out threateningly, not to Columbine, but to Nedda, "His name!"

"Pagliaccio! Pagliaccio!" protests Nedda, still trying to keep in the play. "No!" cries out her husband-in a passage dramatically almost as effective as "Ridi Pagliaccio!" -- "I am Pagliaccio no more! I am a man again, with anguish deep and human!" The audience thinks his intensity is wonderful acting – all save Silvio, who shows signs of anxiety.

"Thou had’st my love," concludes Canio, "but now thou hast my hate and scorn."

"If you doubt me," argues Nedda, "why not let me leave you?"

"And go to your lover! -- His name! Declare it!"

Still desperately striving to keep in the play, and avert the inevitable, Nedda, as if she were Columbine, sings a chic gavotte, "Survvia, cosi terrible" (I never knew, my dear, that you were such a tragic fellow).

She ends with a laugh, but stops short, at the fury in Canio’s look, as he takes a knife from the table.

"His name!"

"No!" – Save her lover she will, at whatever cost to herself.

The audience is beginning to suspect that this is no longer acting. The women draw back frightened, overturning the benches. Silvio is trying to push his way through to the stage.

Nedda makes a dash to escape into the audience. Canio pursues and catches up with her.

"Take that-and-that!" (He stabs her in the back). "Di morte negli spasimi lo dirai" (In the last death agony, thou’lt call his name).

"Soccorso... Silvio!" (Help! Help! -- Silvio!)

A voice from the audience cries, "Nedda!" A man has nearly reached the spot where she lies dead. Canio turns savagely, leaps at him. A steel blade flashes. Silvio falls dead beside Nedda.

‘Gesumaria!" shriek the women; "Ridi Pagliaccio!" sob the instruments of the orchestra. Canio stands stupefied. The knife falls from his hand:

"La commedia e finita" (The comedy is ended).

There are plays and stories in which, as in "Pagliacci," the drama on a mimic stage suddenly becomes real life, so that they tragedy of the play changes to the life-tragedy of one or more of the characters. "Yorick’s Love," in which I saw Lawrence Barrett act, and of which I wrote a review for Harper’s Weekly, was adapted by William D. Howells from "Drama Nuevo" by Estebanez, which is at least fifty years older than "Pagliacci." In it the actor Yorick really murders the actor, whom in character, he is supposed to kill in the play. In the plot, as in real life, this actor had won away the love of Yorick’s wife, before whose eyes he is slain by the wronged husband. About 1883, I should say, I wrote a story, "A Performance of Othello," for a periodical published by students of Columbia University, in which the player of Othello, impelled by jealousy, actually kills his wife, who is the Desdemona, and then, as in the play, slays himself. Yet, although the motif is an old one, this did not prevent Catulle Mendès, who himself had been charged with plagiarizing, in "La Femme de Tabarin," Paul Ferrière’s earlier play, "Tabarin," from accusing Leoncavallo of plagiarizing "Pagliacci" from "La Femme de tabarin," and from instituting legal proceedings to enjoin the performance of the opera in Brussels. There upon Leoncavallo, in a letter to his publisher, stated that during his childhood at Montalta a jealous player killed his wife after a performance, that his father was the judge at the criminal’s trial -- circumstances which so impressed the occurrence on his mind that he was led to adapt the episode for his opera. Catulle Mendès accepted the explanation and withdrew his suit.

There has been some discussion regarding the correct translation of "Pagliacci." It is best rendered as "Clowns,’ although it only is necessary to read in Italian cyclopedias the definition of Pagliaccio to appreciate Philip Hale’s caution that the character is not a clown in the restricted circus sense. Originally the word, which is the same as the French paillasse, signified a bed of straw, then was extended to include an upholstered under-mattress, and finally was applied to the buffoon in the old Italian comedy, whose costume generally was striped like the ticking or stuff, of which the covering of a mattress is made.

The play on the mimic stage in "Pagliacci" is, in fact, one of the Harlequin comedies that has been acted for centuries by strolling players in Italy. But for the tragedy that intervenes in the opera Pagliaccio’s ruse in returning before he was expected, in order to surprise his wife, Columbina, with Arlecchino, would have been punished by his being buffeted about the room and ejected. For "the reward of Pagliaccio’s most adroit stratagems is to be boxed on the ears and kicked."

Hence the poignancy of "Ridi Pagliaccio!"

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