Musical Drama in two acts, with a prologue, by Ruggiero Leoncavallo.
In the prologue, a wonderful piece of music, Tonio, the clown, announces to the public the deep tragic sense which often is hidden behind a farce, and pre-pares them for the sad end of the lovers in this comedy.
The introduction, with its wonderful largo, is like a mournful lamentation; then the curtain opens, showing the entry of a troop of wandering actors, so common in Southern Italy. They are received with high glee by the peasants, and Canio, the owner of the troop, invites them all to the evening’s play. Canio looks somewhat gloomy, and he very much resents the taunts of the peasants, who court his beautiful wife Nedda and make remarks about the clown’s attentions to her, Nevertheless Canio gives way to his friends’ invitation for a glass of wine, and he takes leave of his wife with a kiss, which, however, does not quite restore her peace of mind, Nedda’s conscience being somewhat disturbed. But soon she casts aside all evil forebodings and vies with the birds in warbling pretty songs, which, though reminding the hearer of Wagner’s Siegfried are of surpassing harmony and sweetness. Tonio spying the moment to find Nedda alone, approaches her with a declaration of love, but she haughtily turns from him, and as he only grows more obtrusive and even tries to embrace her, she seizes a whip and slaps him in the face. Provoked to fury, he swears to avenge himself. Hardly has he turned away when the peasant .Silvio appears on the wall. He is Nedda’s lover, and, having seen Canio sitting in the tavern, he entreats Nedda to separate herself from the husband she never loved and take flight with him. Nedda hesitates between duty and passion, and at last the latter prevails and she sinks into his arms. This love-duet is wonderful in style and harmony. Tonio unfortunately has spied out the lovers and returns with Canio. But, on perceiving the latter’s approach, Silvio has leaped over the wall, his sweetheart’s body covering his own person so that Canio is unable to recognize his rival; he once more reminds Nedda to be ready that night, and then takes flight. With an inarticulate cry Canio rushes after him, and Nedda falls on her knees to pray for her lover’s escape, while Tonio triumphs over her misery. The husband, however, returns defeated; panting, he claims the lover’s name, and Nedda’s lips remaining sealed he is about to stab his wife when Beppo (Harlequin) intervenes. Wrenching the dagger from his unfortunate master’s hands, he intimates that it is time to prepare for the play. While Nedda retires Canio breaks out into a bitter wail over his hard lot, which compels him to take part in the farce, which for him is bitter reality. With this air the tragic height of the opera is reached.
In the second act the spectators throng before the small stage, each of them eager to get the best seat. Nedda appears dressed as Columbine, and while she is collecting the money she finds time to warn Silvio of her husband’s wrath. The curtain opens and Nedda is seen alone on the stage listening to the sentimental songs of Harlequin, her lover in the play. Before she has given him the sign to enter, Tonio, in the play called Taddeo, the fool, enters, bringing the food which his mistress has ordered for herself and Harlequin. Just as it really happened in the morning, the poor fool now makes love to her in play ; but when scornfully repulsed he humbly retires, swearing to the goodness and pureness of his lady-love. Harlequin entering through the window, the two begin to dine merrily, but Taddeo reenters, in mocking fright, to announce the arrival of the husband. Canio, however, is in terrible earnest, and when he hoarsely exacts the lover’s name the lookers-on, who hitherto have heartily applauded every scene, begin to feel the awful tragedy hidden behind the comedy.
Nedda remains outwardly calm, and mockingly she names innocent Harlequin as the one who had dined with her. Then Canio begins by reminding her how he found her in the street a poor waif and stray, whom he nursed, petted, and loved, and Nedda remaining cold, his wrath rises to fury and he wildly curses her, shrieking, The name, I will know his name !” But Nedda, though false, is no traitress. “Should it cost my life I will never betray him !” she cries, at the same time trying to save her life by hurrying from the stage among the spectators. Too late, alas ! Canio already has reached and stabbed her, and Silvio, who rushes forward, also receives his death-stroke from the hands of the deceived husband, who has heard his name slip from the dying lips of his wife. All around stand petrified; nobody dares to touch the avenger of his honor, who stands by his wife’s corpse limp and broken-hearted. “Go.,” says he, “go, the farce is ended.”