The saga of a jilted lover and a jealous husband, Pagliacci tells the tale of Canio, the leader of a traveling
commedia dell’arte troupe. Canio is the clown who must laugh, and make others laugh, while masking
his grief after learning that his wife Nedda has betrayed him with another man. In the end, art meets
tragedy in a rage of passion and jealousy.
Before the curtain rises, Tonio, dressed as his commedia dell’arte character, Taddeo (the fool), steps out to speak to the audience. He explains
that the story we will see is not just fiction, but also a scene from real life, with the actors expressing genuine human feelings (“Si può?”–A word?).
ACT I: A village in Southern Italy, c. 1900
A traveling troupe of players returns to perform in a small town. Canio, leader of the troupe, describes that night’s offering—the troubles of Pagliaccio—which will begin just before sunset. A villager invites the performers to the tavern; Canio and Beppe accept while Tonio decides to stay behind. Someone makes a joke about the hunchback Tonio having a chance to seduce Canio’s wife, Nedda. Canio warns everyone that while he may play a cuckold on the stage, in real life he will not tolerate other men making advances on Nedda (“Un tal gioco, credete mi”–Such a game is better not played). As church bells ring the evening vespers, the men go off to the tavern, leaving Nedda alone.
Disturbed by her husband’s dark jealousy (“Qual fiamma avea nel guardo”–What flames were in those glances), Nedda muses on the freedom of
the birds flying overhead (“Stridono lassù”–Birds without number). Tonio listens to her song, and indeed confesses his love for her, but she treats
him as the lovelorn clown in their play. When he becomes aggressive, she lashes out at him; Tonio leaves furiously, uttering an oath of vengeance.
Nedda does, in fact, have a secret lover: a villager named Silvio. Moments after Tonio’s departure, Silvio arrives. He urges her to run away with him
after the performance; at first Nedda resists, but eventually she yields to his suggestion. Tonio, still smarting from Nedda’s rejection, overhears the
two lovers and hurries off to tell Canio.
Before long the jealous husband bursts in on the guilty pair as they are kissing farewell with the words ‘Til tonight! And then I’ll be yours forever!’
Silvio escapes before Canio can identify him, and Nedda defiantly refuses to divulge her secret. Canio threatens her, but another player, Beppe,
intercedes. Tonio advises Canio that the mysterious lover will surely give himself away at the performance that night. Alone and thinking about
Nedda’s betrayal, Canio sings about his torment: to play the clown, while his heart is truly breaking (“Vesti la giubba”–Put on your costume).
The villagers, Silvio among them, assemble to see the performance. The curtain rises on a play which bears a striking resemblance to that afternoon’s
While her husband Pagliaccio is away, Columbina’s lover, Arlecchino, arrives to serenade her (“O, Columbina”). Her buffonish servant Taddeo returns
from the market, and attempts to court her in Pagliaccio’s absence. With pointed malice, Taddeo sings of Columbina’s purity and innocence; his
sarcasm is not lost on Canio, who awaits his entrance backstage. Columbina mocks Taddeo and rejects his advances, and Arlecchino kicks him out
of the room, sending the villagers into peals of laughter.
The sweethearts dine together and plot to poison Pagliaccio. Taddeo bursts in, warning that the jealous and suspicious Pagliaccio is about to return.
Arlecchino slips out the window, but not before Canio hears Columbina’s parting words to her lover, which he recognizes from their real-life argument
that afternoon. Enraged, Canio attempts to follow the script, demanding that Columbina reveal her lover’s name. Nedda responds in character,
denying everything. Crossing the blurred line between illusion and reality, Canio answers that if his face is pale, it is not from the stage makeup but
from the shame she has brought him (“No! Pagliaccio non son!”–No! I am Pagliaccio no longer!).
The crowd is confused, but impressed by the realism of the ‘acting.’ Canio repeats his demand to know the name of her lover, and Nedda at last steps
out of character herself, swearing that she will never tell him. Too late, the crowd realizes that the players are not acting, as the maddened Canio
attacks Nedda. She cries out for Silvio, who rushes towards the stage only to be met by Canio’s avenging blade. Stunned, Tonio says the closing
lines of the tragedy (“La commedia è finita!”–The play is over!).
Introduction to Opera
At 6:30 before evening performances and at 1:30 before matinees, a free talk will be presented in the California Theatre that will acquaint you with the composer’s life, his place in the history of opera, the story and its characters. If you are attending the 1:30 or 6:30 Introduction, you must be ticketed for that day’s performance; and your ticket must be torn as you enter the building.
A one-hour preview for each 2018-19 production is presented free of charge in the third floor rehearsal hall of the California Theatre, located at 345 S. First Street. Please enter via Market Street entrance and take elevator to third floor. Moderated by GD Larry Hancock, the preview includes a lecture and performances by OSJ artists. Dates for previews are as follows:
- The Abduction from the Seraglio: September 4, 2018
- Pagliacci: November 6, 2018
- Moby-Dick: January 29, 2019
- Madama Butterfly: April 2, 2019
All previews begin at 12 noon.
Opera at Your Doorstep Lecture Series
Increase your understanding of opera and enjoy upcoming Opera San José performances all the more by attending one of longtime OSJ subscriber Bradford Wade’s FREE previews. Dates for Pagliacci lecture talks will be announced in October 2018. For more information about the Opera at Your Doorstep Lecture Series and/or to RSVP, email OperaAtYourDoorstep@gmail.com.
Performances of Pagliacci are made possible, in part, by a Cultural Affairs grant from the the City of San Jose.