Pagliacci, Leoncavallo, Opera, Synopsis, Vesti la giubba, aria

The online opera guide to PAGLIACCI

Pagliacci was a stroke of genius of youth. Leoncavallo was 33 years old when he composed this masterpiece. He owes his fame to a single work and throughout his life Leoncavallo searched for a second “Pagliacci”. He shared this fate with Pietro Mascagni, who two years earlier wrote the second great work of the verism “Cavalleria rusticana”.




Overview and quick access





♪ Act I (Afternoon)

♪ Act II (Evening theater performance)

Recording Recommendation


Si puo ?  (Prologo)

Stridono lassu (Balatella)

Recitar … Vesti la giubba


No Pagliaccio non son




Roles and Synopsis






Paris, 1884


Based on an idea by Ruggero Leoncavallo (has been disputed, see also comment in text).

The main roles

Nedda/plays Colombina, Actress (soprano) - Canio/plays Pagliaccio, Actor and boss of the company (tenor) - Tonio/plays Taddeo, Actore (baritone) - Beppo/Arlecchino, Actor (tenor) - Silvio, young man from the village (bariton)

Recording recommendation

EMI with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano under Tullio Serafin and the choir and orchestra of Milan's La Scala







Libretto and plot

Leoncavallo studied music as well as literature and thus became his own librettist. He wrote the libretto to “Pagliacci” himself and based it on a true event that Leoncavallo, according to his own words, experienced himself: “The then eight-year-old attended the performance of a comic troupe together with a servant. When the servant saw himself behind the scenes with the Bajazzo’s wife during the theater play and was caught by the jealous husband, both were stabbed to death by the raving man” (Krause, Philipps). This anecdote cannot be historically proven, according to the principle “se non è vero, è ben trovato”.
It is possible that Mendès “La femme de Tabarin” served Leoncavallo as the basis for the drama. Leoncavallo was well versed in French literature, having studied in Paris for several years. He was subsequently sued by Mendès, whereupon Baus, another writer, sued Mendes for plagiarism, claiming that he had copied his work “Un drama nuevo”. Mendes subsequently withdrew the suit against Leoncavallo in order to let grass grow over the story.




The Verismo style combines realistic theater with raw emotional music. There is no precise definition of verismo, but Leoncavallo lets Tonio say a characteristic sentence in the prologue: The people on stage are “of flesh and blood”. The prologue became the program of verismo. To achieve the greatest possible effect, the music seeks to express violent passions and intense feelings. The music wants to touch the heart of the listener and address his sensitive sides. The artful song is abandoned in favor of dramatic vocal lines. The music also draws inspiration from popular music, as the stories are set in the everyday life of the Italian population at the turn of the century.




Leoncavallo was a convinced follower of Richard Wagner and also got to know him personally. Among other things, he adopted the leitmotif technique from the German. Three motifs are of outstanding importance and are quoted again and again in Pagliacci. They are the jealousy motif, the love motif and Canio’s motif. You will learn the musical examples of these three motives in the Preludio.



Sonzognos Competition

Like Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana”, “Pagliacci” was entered in the one-act competition of the publisher Sonzogno, but could not win a prize because, despite its brevity, it was simply not a one-act work. However, it received an honorary prize. The two key works of Verismo are often performed together on one evening, which is a marathon for the tenor when he has to sing the Turriddu and the Canio on the same evening.











The opera begins with a short orchestral introduction.


The famous prologue

Synopsis: The clown Tonio appears before the curtain and explains the purpose the piece. Real life is shown, nothing is faked. Instead looking at the theatrical costumes one should look into the soul of the actors.

This unique prologue “Si puo, Signore” introduces the opera. Instead of a classical orchestral prelude, a spoken overture. A beautiful and surprising effect!

We hear Leonard Warren, who was one of the great American baritones. Especially remarkable are his radiant high tones. He even reached the high C, which is very unusual for a baritone even to some tenor who cannot produce a high C on every day.

Si puo, Signore (Prologo)  –   Warren


Synopsis: At the entrance to the village there is a sign saying “great show tonight”. It is afternoon and the actors arrive at the market square. The whole village is on its feet..

 Son qua (Chor) – Arena di Verona           



The opera troupe arrives in the village

Synopsis: Canio, the aging boss of the troupe, announces the evening show. He suspiciously watches Tonio flirting with Canio’s wife Nedda, whom he once found as an orphan on the streets.

Un grande spettacolo – Domingo


Synopsis: Canio takes the farmers to the inn. They tease him because of his jealousy. Canio swears that if Nedda cheated on him, he would kill her. He wouldn’t be idle like Pagliaccio in the play.

In this second aria the mood changes rapidly. Now it is no longer the clown who appears, but the man who can glow with jealousy. At the thought of the deception something would happen “(Finirebbe la storia”). In this moment we hear the jealousy motive of the Canio:


Watch this scene with Jon Vickers in the 1968 Karajan film adaptation.

Un tal gioco, credetemi  –  Vickers


Synopsis: The church bells are ringing. It is time for the mass. A solemn procession marches through the village.


Din Don  –  Camerata Romana


Neddas moral conflict

Synopsis: Nedda heard the oath of Canios. She is restless. She secretly loves Silvio, a young man from the village.

This piece is also known under the name “Balatella”, meaning “a simple song”. But it is not. A look at the lyrics shows us that Nedda is afraid of the jealousy of Canio (brutale come egli è; brutal as he is). A swarm of birds is pulling on her and her mind brightens in the following “Stridono lassu”. Shimmering strings and harp music imitate the beats of the wings of the flock of birds. The notes are long at first, but become shorter and shorter, which has a dramatic effect. Nedda wants to do it like the birds and escape to freedom and the aria ends in a triumphal ending.

Listen to Maria Callas in a gripping recording. She never sang Nedda on stage. Perhaps this is due to the fact, that Pagliacci is considered a tenor’s opera, where the tenor is standing in the limelight.

Stridono lassu  –  Callas


Synopsis: The hunchbacked Tonio appears. He wants to confess his love to Nedda, but she just laughs at him. She whips him in the face as he gets pushy. The humiliated Tonio leaves the square and is seeking revenge.

Sei la –  Dyka, Maestri


Synopsis: Silvio appears. He tries to persuade Nedda to stay, but Nedda is afraid of Canio’s revenge. Silvio begs Nedda to flee with him. Tonio has secretly observes the two. Silvio conjures up their love and together they decide to flee this night after the performance.

This duet is a passionate piece of music. But the misfortune floats over the love of the two: threatening one hears Canios revenge motive in the music.

The recording of Maria Callas and Rolando Panerai makes Kesting rave: “In the following duet we experience once more how intoxicatingly beautiful Callas can sing. Beautiful not only in the sense of dramatic correctness, but also in the sense of a flood of sound for the listener. Has a “Silvio” ever sung ths part as blessed, happy and passionate as Rolando Panerai here ? In the singing of both, passion is not expressed, as so often happens, but it becomes “music and form”. (Kesting, “Maria Callas”)

E allor perché di tu m’hai stregato  –  Callas/Panerai

Synopsis: Meanwhile Tonio has fetched Canio. Canio dashes at the unknown, but Silvio manages to escape. Canio presses Nedda and wants to know his name. When Nedda refuses to tell his name, Canio takes out a knife. Peppe and Tonio can stop him from slashing at Nedda.

The scene begins with the love motif, but soon Canio can’t stand hiding anymore and chases after the unknown. Leoncavallo composes a gripping chase, but Silvio manages to escape and Canio returns to Nedda under the threatening musical motives of jealousy. His mood becomes darker and darker until the motif arrives in the trombones, the sign of death to come.

Cammina adagio  –  Pavarotti / Freni / Wixell



Vesti la Giubba – Pagliaccio’s breakdown

Synopsis: Canio is desperate about his situation and collapses.

The final verses of this aria have become rightly famous (ridpagliaccio):

Laugh clown
At your broken love
Laugh at the pain
Which posons your heart


The tenor’s ability to express the feelings to the maximum is required in this aria. Leoncavallo wrote at this point “with true tears”. Here the artist must reveal Canio’s soul and make his torments seem real. Leoncavallo has prepared this scene with a great crescendo and doubles the voice of the tenor with the orchestra to overwhelm the listener with the emotions of the clown.

Let’s listen to three recordings of this aria. We begin with the famous version of Caruso.

With the recording of “Vesti la giubba” Enrico Caruso made history. Let Jürgen Kesting speak: “On March 17, 1907, Caruso’s most famous and momentous record was recorded. It is the Canio’s lamento from Pagliacci with the inimitable sob and the desperate laughter after the phrase “bah, si tu forse un uom”. The long phrase “sul tuo amore infranto”, to be unfolded with a great sound, forms Caruso, audibly carried away by what he sings and suffers singing, on one breath and a powerful, even ecstatic phonation.

This recording from 1907 was, by the way, the first record of which over a million copies were sold !

Recitar…vesti la giubba (1)  –  Caruso


Pagliaccio/Canio was one of Domingo’s parade roles. His “Vesti la giubba” from a great film adaptation of Zeffirelli was memorable. Perhaps others have sung a more beautiful, richer high passage in this aria, but the overall impression is overwhelming.

Recitar…vesti la giubba (2)  –  Domingo


Pavarotti was perhaps the Canio that touched the general public the most.

Recitar…vesti la giubba (3)  –  Pavarotti



For those who are pop fans: Freddie Mercury recorded the musical theme of Vesti la giubba in the first bars of the Queen song “it is a hard life”.

Vesti la giubba vs Queen


More information and YouTube videos on the aria “VESTI LA GIUBBA” can be found trough this link









Leoncavallo wanted to be just as good as Mascagni in “cavalleria rusticana” and also wrote a wonderful intermezzo.

Intermezzo sinfonico


Synopsis: It’s evening. The spectator stands fill up.

The choir scenes are the resting points of the work. While the actors are all hotheads and their drama fascinates us, we can enjoy beautiful music and stage sets in the colorful choir passages.


Presto, affretiamoci  –  Coro



The play begins

Synopsis: The comedy begins. Nedda plays Colombina. She knows that her husband Pagliaccio (Canio) is out of town and she is listening to her lover Arlecchino, who serenades her in front of the house.

In keeping with the characters of the Commedia Dell ‘Arte, Leoncavallo accompanies the serenade of Arlecchino with old forms (minuet, gavotte).

A miracle of sound instinct (Kesting) is the “O Colombina” by Tito Schipa.

O Colombina (1)  –  Schipa


For Pavarotti fans,  I have put a special recording in the playlist: A sound document of this aria with piano accompaniment.

O Colombina (2)  –  Pavarotti

Another great aria – No pagliaccio no son

Synopsis:  The bearish Taddeo steps into Colombina’s room and confesses his love to her. She rejects him and soon Arlecchino is with her. Taddeo comes back and warns them that Pagliaccio has returned to the village and is beside himself. Arlecchino gives her a powder that she can pour into his drink, so that they can escape together at night. When Canio enters the room, he is unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. When he wants to know the name of her lover, Colombina alias Nedda refuses to reveal it.  Pagliaccio’s excitement increases more and more.

Leoncavallos’ idea of mixing reality and theatre is as unique as it is ingenious. The audience watches the actors spellbound, because the whole thing seems to be real. The tension of the stage audience is transmitted to the listener. Together with the haunting music, the result is a unique opera thriller.

A recording from the golden years of di Stefanos, the famous Italian tenor and favourite partner of Callas.

No Pagliaccio non son (1)  –  diStefano/Callas


The recording of Caruso still impresses today. His voice was rather dark, lyrical and yet with great volume and rich colors.

No Pagliacccio non son (2)  –  Caruso



The dramatic finale

Synopsis: When Nedda refuses again, Canio stabs Nedda. Silvio rushes to the stage to help Nedda. Canio recognizes the rival and kills him, too. In a hollow voice Tonio announces: “The comedy is over”.

You will experience the finale in Zeffireli’s film adaptation. Placido Domingo plays out his great acting and singing skills and delivers a gripping finale with Teresa Stratas.

You can read about his Canio in the book “Domingo my operatic roles” von Helena Matheopolous: “Domingo on stage also arouses maxiumum terror in the sopranos who sing Nedda with him. Veronica Villaroel, who did so in Washington and the Metropolitan Opera, recalls that on both occasions she felt real fear on stage: “When I play Nedda to Placidos Canio I am scared to death, I’m scared he really will kill me, Mamma mia, I feel real terror!”

Pagliaccio finale  –  Domingo/Prêtre

Who has the last word in the opera is controversial. The famous sentence “la commedia è finita” is attributed in the Libretto to Canio. Leoncavallo is said to have explicitly named him Tonio as the right person.


Recording Recommendation

EMI with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano under Tullio Serafin and the choir and orchestra of  Milan’s La Scala




Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to PAGLIACCI by Ruggero Leoncavallo





0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *