“I Pagliacci” or “The Players,” a tragic opera in two acts and a prologue, with words and music by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, was first performed at the Teatro dal Verme, Milan, May 21, 1892.
Canio (in the play, Punchinello), master of a troupe of strolling players. Nedda (in the play, Columbine), wife of Canio. Tonio (in the play, Taddeo), the clown. Seppe (in the play, Harlequin), one of the troupe. Silvio, a villager. Villagers.
In the prologue, sung in front of the curtain, a hint of coming gloom is given and Tonio, who sings, suggests that back of the motley and tinsel are human hearts beating with passion.
” I Pagliacci ” is a play within a play. The scene of the story is laid in Calabria and the plot concerns itself with the members of a traveling troupe of players. They arrive in the Italian village and are warmly welcomed by the curious inhabitants. It soon develops that all is not harmony in the little company. The beautiful Nedda is far too attractive to be really creative of happiness, and not only does she possess a husband, Canio, whom she does not love, but two lovers as well. Tonio is madly in love with her but she is enamored of Silvio, a villager, and scorn-fully rejects the somewhat loutish advances of the clown. She summarily dismisses him, cutting him across the face with a riding whip when he tries to embrace her and thereby securing his active enmity.
Shortly thereafter, his opportunity comes. Overhearing her planning with Silvio to elope, he rushes away to inform Canio who is drinking at the tavern. Canio comes post-haste but Silvio escapes over the wall. The husband has not been able to recognize him and Nedda cannot be terrified into disclosing his identity. Canio is about to stab his unfaithful wife when Beppe, the clown, interferes, warning him that it is high time to prepare for the play. In no heart for play-acting, Canio postpones his vengeance and, lamenting, makes ready to appear as Punchinello.
The second act opens on the same scene. It is evening and the rustic audience has assembled before the little theatre. Nedda, while collecting the admission fees, has managed a word with Silvio. When the curtain on the rude stage is drawn aside, it soon becomes apparent that the play is to be a replica of the state of affairs existing in the troupe. Nedda, as Columbine, is alone on the stage listening to the tender songs of Harlequin, her lover in the play. Tonio, as Taddeo, the fool, enters to serve them with food, and, just as he has done a few hours before in real life, he now makes love to her and she repulses him haughtily. To complete the resemblance between the mimic and the real play, the fool brings back the wronged husband who finds Columbine and her lover dining merrily together and plotting to poison Punchinello. But the anger which Punchinello shows soon becomes too terrible in quality to be merely acting and even the audience which is being well entertained begins to realize this. When Punchinello rushes upon Columbine and in maddened tones again demands the name of her lover, they feel that it is a real tragedy which is developing under their eyes. Nedda sees her necessity and calls upon Silvio in the audience to save her. He leaps upon the stage but is too late. Canio has thrust his erring wife through with a dagger and with its dripping blade he turns and stabs Silvio, too. Then Canio turns to the audience, in whose eyes he is vindicated. “Go,” he says hoarsely, “the comedy is ended.”
This fiery melodrama, distinctly Italian, dramatic and forceful in method is generally compared to “Cavalleria Rusticana” which it follows closely. The music is consistent, making an effective, illustrative and enhancing accompaniment to the exciting incidents of the plot. There is much of the modern Italian short-phrased melody in the score. The intense nature of the story, together with the strongly impassioned, unquestionably sincere and, in many respects, beautiful character of the music lend the work qualities which promise to secure for it long enduring favor in the public’s esteem and to make it one of the best products thus far received from the young Italian school.
Especially admirable are : The “prologue ” sung by Tonio before the curtain, a number which virtually takes the place of an overture; the chorus imitative of bells, ” Dong, ding, dong;” Nedda’s cavatina, “O, che volo d’augelli” (“Ah, ye birds without number”); the duet for Nedda and Silvio, “E allor perchè” (” Wherefore I pray thee”); Canio’s “Lament” which closes the first act, ” Recitar ! mentre preso dal delivio” (” To go on! When my head’s whirling”); the “Intermezzo” between the two acts; Harlequin’s serenade sung behind the scenes of the mimic theatre, “0 Columbine, il tenero ” (” Columbine, your Harlequin”) and the music accompanying the play.