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Opera Background

ComposerRuggero Leoncavallo
LibrettistRuggero Leoncavallo
Date of PremierMay 21, 1892
Number of ActsTwo
Opera LengthOne Hour, Twenty Minutes

Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci was his only opera that gained popularity around the world. The literal translation of “”Pagliacci” is “Clowns”, but the title refers to a character of the traditional Italian form of theater, commedia dell’arte. For this reason Pagliacci is also sometimes refered as “the clown opera” or “sad clown opera”. Based on events from Leoncavallo’s childhood, Pagliacci is about the tragic events of actors in an Italian comedy troupe. It is also distinct in that the entire second act features a sort of “play-within-a-play” where the crowd is watching another crowd watching a performance by the characters. In the end, there are blurred lines between who is acting and who is not.

Soon after it’s premier in Milan Pagliacci was performed in New York and London and gained quick popularity.

Quick Answers

What is the Most Famous Song from Pagliacci

“Vesti la giubba” from Act 1 of Pagliacci is the most famous song from the opera, and is a staple of Italian opera. It is performed by Canio, a stage performer who has just found his wife having affair, but must prepare for the show and laugh through his pain.

Luciano Pavarotti singing “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci

How Do You Pronounce Pagliacci?

Pagliacci, Italian for “clowns”, is pronounced in Italian “Pa-lee-a-chee”

Who Are the Lovers in Pagliacci

Off-stage, Canio is married to Nedda, who is lovers with Silvio. Canio and Nedda are also married on stage as the characters Colombina and Pagliacco, with Colombina’s lover being Harlequin.


  • Canio, the head of a comedy theater company (tenor)
  • Nedda, his wife (soprano)
  • Tonio, an actor (Baritone)
  • Beppe, an actor (tenor)
  • Silvio (Baritone)

Musical Numbers

Musical Numbers – Act 1

  • Si può?…Signore! Signori!: A man addresses the crowd before the show begins
  • “Son qua! Ritornano”: The village crowd cheers as the show is about to begin
  • “Un grande spettacolo” : Canio invites the villagers to tonight’s show
  • “Un tal gioco, credetemi”: Canio warns that an affair in real life is not like on the stage
  • “I zampognari!”: Bagpipers are heard from the church
  • “Don, din, don – suona vespero”: The villagers head to the church
  • “Qual fiamma avea nel guardo!”: Nedda sings of her fear of Canio
  • “Stridono lassù”: Nedda is calmed and reminded of her dreams by the birds
  • “Sei là?”: Nedda discovers Tanio standing nearby
  • “Nedda! – Silvio, a quest’ora?”: Silvio urges Nedda to run away with him after the show
  • “Decidi il mio destin”: Nedda struggles with the decision to flee with Silvio
  • “Cammina adagio e li sorprenderai!”: Tanio leads Canio on the scene to catch Nedda and Silvio
  • “Vesti la giubba”: Canio puts on his costume and makeup through tears

Musical Numbers – Act 2

  • “Presto affrettiamoci”: Villagers gather around for the show
  • “Pagliacco, mio marito”: The troupe begins their comedy show
  • “È dessa! Dei, come è bella!”: [In the troupe’s show] Tonio’s character confesses his love
  • “Arlecchin! Colombino!”: [In the troupe’s show] Nedda and Beppe’s characters dine together
  • “Corragio”: [In the troupe’s show] Canio enters in costume drunk
  • “No, Pagliacco non son!”: Canio breaks character and demands Nedda’s lover’s name
  • “Suvvia, cosi terrible”: Nedda cowers from the enraged Canio

Pagliacci Full Synopsis

Full Synopsis – Act 1

As the overture comes to an end Tonio appears in costume from behind the curtain and addresses the crowd (“Si può?…Signore! Signori!” – “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen”). He announces that he is the prologue, and reminds the crowd that all they are about to see is acting and to not be alarmed at any tears or violence. He mentions that the writer of the show based it on true people and true stories, and reminds the crowd that the actors are real people as well. And with that, he let’s the show begin.

Juan Pons performs “Si puo…Signore! Signori”” at the Metropolitan opera Theater

The curtain rises and villagers begin to crowd around the stage, exlaiming their excitement at the comedy troupe’s return (“Son qua!” Ritornano” – “They’re here! They’re back!”). Canio begins to speak to the captive crowd, telling them about tonight’s show (“Un grande spettacolo” – “A grand performance”). He says the show at 11 o’clock will tell of the vengeance of the good Pagliacco, and what ensues after that. Canio’s wife Nedda is about to get down off of the cart, and Tonio reaches out to help her down, but is kicked out of the way by Canio. The village kids laugh at the angered Tonio.

One of the villagers invites Canio to join them for a drink at the local tavern. Canio and Beppe accept the invite, but when Canio asks Tanio if he’s joining them, Tanio responds that he must stay back. The villagers all jest that Tanio is only staying back to spend time with Nedda. Canio brushes this off saying that an affair on the stage ends in laughs, in real life it would have a very different ending and that it’s better not to play such games (“Un tal gioca, credetemi” – “Such a game, believe me”). With a kiss Canio claims that he adores his wife and doesn’t suspect a word of such an affair.

Givi Chichinadze sings “Un tal gioca, credetemi”

Church bells begin to sound from the church (“I zampognari!” – “The bagpipers”). The villagers head off to the church happily (“Don, din, don – suona vespero” – “Ding dong – the vespers have sounded”) and Beppe and Canio head to the tavern leaving Nedda alone on stage. She begins to sing of her fear of Canio’s passion for her. She says that she fears what would happen if he ever caught her (“Qual fiamma avea nel guardo!” – “What fire there was in his gaze!”). She is clearly perplexed at her situation. But as she hears birds chirping above, she is reminded of her dreams and is enchanted by the birds (“Stridono lassù” – “The birds chirp up there”).

Aleksandra Kurzak sings Nedda’s “Stridono lassu”

Towards the end of her song, she discovers Tanio standing there (“Sei là?” – “You’re there?”). He claims that her song is to blame, and compliments her poetry. Tanio confesses his love to her, saying he is completely conquered by his love for her. She says that he get’s to show his love tonight on the stage and Tanio begs her to stop joking. Tanio is angered and goes to grab Nedda to kiss her and she strikes him with a whip. Enraged Tanio swears she will pay for this.

Nedda is finally relived when Silvio arrives (“Nedda! – Silvio, a quest’ora?” – “Nedda! Silvio, at this hour?”). She tells him of Tanio’s attempted assult, and Silvio expresses his concern for her. He sings of his passion for her, and says that if it’s really true that she never loved Canio and is unhappy with her life then she would flee with him tonight after the performance (“Decidi il mio destin” – “Decide my fate”). Tanio is seen eavesdropping in the back, and runs off claiming that he’s caught her now. Not seeing Tanio, Nedda begs Silvio not to tempt her, but after fighting with her own feelings and reassuring Silvio of her love for him, she decides to agree to Silvio’s plan (“E allor perché, di'” – “And they why, say”) .

Lucas Meachem and Ailyn Perez perform “E allor perche, di” in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s film version of Pagliacci

As they embrace and kiss, Tanio is seen leading Canio on the the scene, telling him to be quiet (“Cammina adagio e li sorprenderai!” – “Walk slowly and you’ll suprise them”). Seeing them exchanging a loving farewell, Canio flies in to a rage and chases Silvio who makes his escape. Nedda curses Tonio, who expresses his pleasure at his role in the situation. Canio returns unable to catch Silvio, and demands Nedda tell him her lovers name. Nedda refuses, and Canio reproaches her. Canio begins to approach her with a knife drawn, but is held back by Beppe, who reminds him that the people are coming out of the church. Beppe and Tonio tell Canio to remain calm and wait for the lover to show himself once more, and tell Canio to go and get dressed for the show.

Left alone, Canio begins to put his costume on, and through tears sings of his duty to laugh through his pain, and that he is not a man, but a clown (“Vesti la giubba” – “Put on the costume”).

Ruggiero Leoncavallo performs “Vesti la giubba”

Full Synopsis – Act 2

Act 2 begins with the villagers chaotically piling in to see the show (“Presto affrettiamoci” – “Hurry up”). Nedda appears in custome, and in the chos of the crowd she stands next to Silvio, and warns him to be careful, as Canio hasn’t spotted him. Silvio reminds her that he will be waiting after the show. The restless crowd begins to call for the show to begin and the curtain rises. The troupe begins to put on their show (“Pagliacco, mio marito” – “My husband, Pagliacco”). In the show, Nedda’s character says that her husband will not be home until late. Beppe arrives as his character outside the window and urges her to come over and kiss him (“O Colombina, il tenero fido Arlecchin” – “O Colombina, your faithful loveing Arlecchin”). As Beppe’s character leaves, Tonio (playing as Nedda’s servent) arrives and says he wants to take a chance while her husband is away (“È dessa! Dei, come è bella!” – “There she is! God, how beautiful she is!”). Tonio’s character confesses his love. Nedda’s character tells Tonio’s to stop bothering her, and Beppe’s character arrives quietly and pulls Tonio away by the ear to the amusement of the crowd.

As Beppe and Nedda’s characters begin to dine, Beppe’s character presents a drug which he tells Nedda to slip to her husband so they can flee (“Arlecchin! Colombino!”). Tonio’s character enters in a panic because the husband (played by Canio) he is on his way in a rage with a weapon. Before he enters Nedda’s character pours the potion (given by Beppe’s Character) into his cup. Canio enters wobbling, drunk (“Corragio” – “Courage”). He does not seem to be acting. Nedda carries on with her lines and the show goes on, but soon Canio breaks character and asks for the name of her lover once more. Nedda, still in charater, calls him by his character’s name, “Pagliacco”. The angered Canio exclaims that he is not Pagliacco (“No, Pagliacco non son” – “No, I am not Pagliacco”) and that although his face is painted he is filled with shame and rage. He expresses his regret from picking her up as an orphan, and the crowd begins to murmur with how real the performance is.

Pavarotti performing “Corragio”and “No, pagliacco non son”

The continue to quarrel, clearly speaking of real life and not the performance. Canio demands her lovers name once more, to which Nedda (still in character and trying to continue the performance) tells him that it was the harmless Harlequin (played by Beppe) (“Suvvia, così terribile” – “Well, so frightening”). Canio grabs a knife and tells her that if she doesn’t tell him she will die. The crows now realizes that they are no longer acting. As Canio grabs Nedda Silvio stabs Nedda with the knife. Silvio runs to her yelling, but before he can reach her Canio turns and stabs him. Canio exclaims “La commedia è finita!”, “The comedy is finished!”