Opera Profile: A Look at Leoncavallo’s ‘Pagliacci’

By David Salazar

Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” has endured as a staple of the operatic canon since its premiere back on May 21, 1892.

Leoncavallo was reportedly inspired to take on the work after seeing the success of Mascagni’s masterwork “Cavalleria Rusticana” and set out to write his own Verismo opera in one-act form. The result was a success that has often been associated with the Mascagni work, the two often presented together. That pairing first came about on Dec. 22, 1893 and has endured since. It is quite common to see the two operas split apart with “Pagliacci” often showcased alongside other short operas, such as the New York City Opera’s recent pairing with “Aleko.”

Quick Plot Summary

The opera opens with Tonio’s famous monologue delivered directly to the audience. He establishes the drama that will unfold before lifting the curtain and becoming a character in the play. We quickly learn that Canio leads a troupe alongside his unhappy wife Nedda and a few other players. Nedda is in love with Silvio while Tonio wants Nedda for himself. After making his advances, Tonio finds himself rejected by Nedda and promises vengeance. She has a meeting with Silvio and the two promise to run off together. At the height of their love scene, Canio discovers them and promises vengeance. Silvio manages to run off so Canio tries to get the truth from his wife, who refuses to answer.

During the ensuing show, Canio continues pursuing the truth, the battle between Nedda and Canio grows in intensity, leading the murder of Nedda by her husband. Silvio shows himself and winds up dead as well.

For the full libretto, click here.

Famous Musical Excerpts

The most famous piece in the entire opera is Canio’s “Vesti La Giubba,” an aria sung by every great tenor in recitals and concerts. During the aria, Canio remarks how, despite his personal pains, he still has to put on a smile and play the part that the public expects from him.

Nedda’s aria “Qual fiamma avea nel guardo” speaks to the character’s desire to have the freedom to fly away from the captivity she feels with Canio.

The ensuing love duet with Silvio pits the two lovers at odds to kick things off. Nedda is frightened at the thought of running away with Silvio but eventually gives in, their love reaching its apex before being interrupted by Canio.

Canio’s final aria “No! Pagliaccio non son!” sees the main character cast off his costume to express the true pain and shame that is dominating him. The aria jumps from an exasperated passage to one of tragic dimension as he mourns the betrayal he has incurred.

Also worthy of note is that final line “La Commedia è finita!” In the original libretto, it was given to Tonio, who also delivers the opera’s opening monologue to the real audience. But in many traditional productions, Canio is given the line, an opportunity for the lead tenor to get the final dramatic word. But that trend is reverting back to the original intention in more recent productions.

Famous Interpreters

The opera, despite having prominent roles for the lead baritone and soprano, is mainly a showcase for the tenor. And as a result, every major dramatic or spinto tenor in history has taken on the role and recorded it. You name it, they’ve probably done it. Enrico Caruso, Franco Corelli, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Mario del Monaco, Beniamino Gigli, Ramón Vinay, Richard Tucker, Carlo Bergonzi, Jussi Björling, John Vickers, James McCracken, Giuseppe Di Stefano, José Cura… The list goes on and on.

Watch or Listen

As was the case with “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Franco Zeffirelli offered up his own filmed version of the famous verismo opera with Plácido Domingo, Juan Pons and Teresa Stratas leading the cast. This production features some exquisite lighting in the second act performance, the blue hue providing start contrast to the warmer tint of the first part. Zeffirelli takes liberties with breaking the fourth wall throughout the performance, playing with audience perspective.


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