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Pagliacci

by Ruggero Leoncavallo


[This synopsis, like my others, is very, very brief. The reason is that I find the normal programme note much too long, and needlessly detailed and complicated. What I want is more of an overview. If I’ve read an overview – a sort of synopsis of a synopsis – I find that, particularly with the help of surtitles, there is then absolutely no need for a blow-by-blow description of the plot.]


Pagliacci is the tragic story of love, betrayal and murder, set against the background of a comedy being staged by a group of strolling players (pagliacci) in a small village in Calabria.


The players are led by Canio, who plays Pagliaccio. His wife is Nedda, who plays Columbine, his fictional wife. The near-parallel between real life and the play is that Nedda is in love with, and planning to elope with, Silvio, a villager who is not one of the players - while her character Columbine is in love with Harlequin, played by Beppe.


Into this fraught situation comes Tonio, the clown, who is also in love with Nedda. Nedda firmly rejects his advances with much mockery. He vows revenge.


When he overhears Nedda and Silvio planning their elopement, he fetches Canio who also overhears them. Neither Canio nor Tonio know who the lover is. At the end of Act 1, the broken-hearted Canio is preparing for the performance and sings the famous “Vesti la giubba” (On with the motley).


In Act 2, the show starts up. When Canio as Pagliaccio is berating Nedda as Columbine, it all turns into real life. Canio picks up a knife and pursues Nedda who tries to escape. He catches up with her and stabs her to death. Silvio emerges and tries to save her, but is himself killed by Canio. “La commedia è finita.”




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