Pagliacci premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 21 May 1892, conducted by Arturo Toscanini (who did not like it), with Adelina Stehle as Nedda, Fiorello Giraud as Canio, Victor Maurel as Tonio, and Mario Ancona as Silvio. Nellie Melba played Nedda in London in 1892, soon after its Italian premiere, and in New York in 1893.
Around 1890, when Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana premiered, Leoncavallo was a little-known composer. After seeing Mascagni's success, he decided to write an opera in response: one act composed in the verismo style. Leoncavallo claimed that he based the story of Pagliacci on an incident from his childhood: a murder in 1865, the victim of which was a Leoncavallo family servant, Gaetano Scavello. The murderer was Gaetano D'Alessandro, with his brother Luigi an accomplice to the crime. The incident resulted from a series of perceived romantic entanglements involving Scavello, Luigi D'Alessandro, and a village girl with whom both men were infatuated. Leoncavallo's father, a judge, was the presiding magistrate over the criminal investigation.
Upon learning of the plot of Leoncavallo's libretto in an 1894 French translation, the French author Catulle Mendès thought it resembled his 1874 play La Femme de Tabarin, such as the play-within-the-play and the clown murdering his wife. Mendès sued Leoncavallo for plagiarism. The composer pleaded ignorance of Mendès' play. Later there were counter-accusations that Mendès' play resembled that of Don Manuel Tamayo y Baus' Un Drama Nuevo (1867) (or it is simply too common for jealous men to murder their wives). Mendès dropped his lawsuit. However, the scholar Matteo Sansone has suggested that, as Leoncavallo was a notable student of French culture, and lived in Paris from 1882 to 1888, he had ample opportunity to be exposed to new French art and musical works. These would potentially have included Mendès' play, another version of La femme de Tabarin by Paul Ferrier, and Tabarin, an opera composed by Émile Pessard that was based on Ferrier's play. Sansone has elaborated on the many parallels among the Mendès, Ferrier, and Pessard versions of the Tabarin story and Pagliacci, noting that Leoncavallo deliberately minimised any sort of connection between his opera and those earlier French works.
Leoncavallo originally titled his story Il pagliaccio (The Clown). The baritone Victor Maurel, who was cast as the first Tonio, requested that Leoncavallo change the title from the singular Il pagliaccio to the plural Pagliacci, to broaden dramatic interest from Canio alone to include Tonio (his own role).
Pagliacci received mixed critical reviews upon its world premiere, but was instantly successful with the public and has remained so ever since. The UK premiere of Pagliacci took place at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London on 19 May 1893. The US premiere followed a month later at Grand Opera House in New York on 15 June, while the Metropolitan Opera first staged the work, as a double-bill with Orfeo ed Euridice, on 11 December of the same year, with "Nedda" sung by Nellie Melba. The Met produced Pagliacci on the same program with Cavalleria rusticana for the first time on 22 December 1893. The two operas have since been frequently performed as a double-bill, a pairing referred to in the operatic world colloquially as "Cav and Pag". Pagliacci was produced alone in Washington National Opera's November 1997 production by Franco Zeffirelli.
|Role||Role in Commedia||Voice type||Premiere cast, 21 May 1892|
(Conductor: Arturo Toscanini )
|Canio, head of the troupe||Pagliaccio||tenor||Fiorello Giraud|
|Nedda, Canio's wife,|
in love with Silvio
|Colombina, Pagliaccio's wife, in love with Arlecchino||soprano||Adelina Stehle|
|Tonio, the fool||Taddeo, Colombina's servant||baritone||Victor Maurel|
|Beppe (Peppe), actor||Arlecchino, Colombina's lover||tenor||Francesco Daddi|
|Silvio, Nedda's lover||baritone||Mario Ancona|
|Chorus of villagers|
- Place: Calabria, near Montalto, on the Feast of the Assumption
- Time: between 1865 and 1870.
During the overture, the curtain rises. From behind a second curtain, Tonio, dressed as his commedia character Taddeo, addresses the audience (Si può?... Si può?... Signore! Signori! ... Un nido di memorie). He reminds the audience that actors have feelings too, and that the show is about real people.
At three o'clock in the afternoon, the commedia troupe enters the village to the cheering of the villagers. Canio describes the night's performance: the troubles of Pagliaccio. He says the play will begin at "ventitre ore", an agricultural method of time-keeping that means the play will begin an hour before sunset. As Nedda steps down from the cart, Tonio offers his hand, but Canio pushes him aside and helps her down himself. The villagers suggest drinking at the tavern. Canio and Beppe accept, but Tonio stays behind. The villagers tease Canio that Tonio is planning an affair with Nedda. Canio warns everyone that while he may act the foolish husband in the play, in real life he will not tolerate other men making advances to Nedda. Shocked, a villager asks if Canio really suspects her. He says no, and sweetly kisses her on the forehead. As the church bells ring vespers, he and Beppe leave for the tavern, leaving Nedda alone.
Nedda is frightened by Canio's vehemence (Qual fiamma avea nel guardo), but the birdsong comforts her (Stridono lassu). Tonio returns and confesses his love for her, but she laughs. Enraged, Tonio grabs Nedda, but she takes a whip, strikes him and drives him off. Silvio, who is Nedda's lover, comes from the tavern, where he has left Canio and Beppe drinking. He asks Nedda to elope with him after the performance and, though she is afraid, she agrees. Tonio, who has been eavesdropping, leaves to inform Canio so that he might catch Silvio and Nedda together. Canio and Tonio return and, as Silvio escapes, Nedda calls after him, "I will always be yours!"
Canio chases Silvio, but does not catch him and does not see his face. He demands that Nedda tell him the name of her lover, but she refuses. He threatens her with a knife, but Beppe disarms him. Beppe insists that they prepare for the performance. Tonio tells Canio that her lover will give himself away at the play. Canio is left alone to put on his costume and prepares to laugh (the famous Vesti la giubba – "Put on the costume").
As the crowd arrives, Nedda, costumed as Colombina, collects their money. She whispers a warning to Silvio, and the crowd cheers as the play begins.
Colombina's husband Pagliaccio has gone away until morning, and Taddeo is at the market. She anxiously awaits her lover Arlecchino, who comes to serenade her from beneath her window. Taddeo returns and confesses his love, but she mocks him. She lets Arlecchino in through the window. He boxes Taddeo's ears and kicks him out of the room, and the audience laughs.
Arlecchino and Colombina dine, and he gives her a sleeping potion to use later. When Pagliaccio returns, Colombina will drug him and elope with Arlecchino. Taddeo bursts in, warning that Pagliaccio is suspicious of his wife and is about to return. As Arlecchino escapes through the window, Colombina tells him, "I will always be yours!"
As Canio enters, he hears Nedda and exclaims "Name of God! Those same words!" He tries to continue the play, but loses control and demands to know her lover's name. Nedda, hoping to keep to the performance, calls Canio by his stage name "Pagliaccio," to remind him of the audience's presence. He answers with his arietta: No! Pagliaccio non son! He sings that if his face is pale, it is not from the stage makeup but from the shame she has brought him. The crowd, impressed by his emotional performance, which they do not realize is real, cheers him.
Nedda, trying to continue the play, admits that she has been visited by the innocent Arlecchino. Canio, furious and forgetting the play, demands the name of her lover. Nedda swears she will never tell him, and the crowd realizes they are not acting. Silvio begins to fight his way toward the stage. Canio, grabbing a knife from the table, stabs Nedda. As she dies she calls: "Help! Silvio!". Canio then stabs Silvio. The famous final line of the opera is:
La Commedia è finita! – "The comedy is ended!"
Assignment of the final line
In the original manuscript, Tonio sang the opera's final line, "La Commedia è finita!", paralleling the Prologue, also sung by Tonio. The appropriation of this final line by Canio dates back to 1895. John Wright has analysed the dramaturgy of the opera in the context of assignment of the final line, and concluded that the original assignment of the final line to Tonio is the most consistent and appropriate assignment. Wright says that Tonio shows more deliberate control in his manipulation of the other characters in order to obtain his revenge upon Nedda, after she has rejected him, and is more aware of the demarcation between life and art. By contrast, Canio is unaware of the behind-the-scenes manipulations and surrenders control of his perception of the difference between life and art as the opera proceeds.
In the present day, the assignment of the final line to Canio has continued to be standard. The few exceptions, where Tonio sings the final line, include a 1968 RAI-TV production directed by Herbert von Karajan, the HMV recording conducted by Riccardo Muti (EMI CMS7 63650-2), and the Philips recording also conducted by Muti (Philips 0289 434 1312), in conjunction with live performances in Philadelphia in February 1992, and the 2013 English-language production by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
The orchestra consists of 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, 2 harps, timpani, tubular bells, percussion (triangle, cymbals, bass drum, glockenspiel) and strings. Additionally, there is an onstage violin, oboe, trumpet, and bass drum. Also included in the final pages of the score is a part in the percussion section marked "T.T." (not assigned in the instrumentation page at the beginning.) Performers have taken this to be a tam-tam (partly because Mascagni used one, although to much greater effect, on the final moments of Cavalleria rusticana). It is given three strokes right after the announcement that "The comedy is over".
In 1907, Pagliacci became the first opera to be recorded in its entirety, with the Puerto Rican tenor Antonio Paoli as Canio and under Leoncavallo's personal supervision. In 1931, it became the first complete opera to be filmed with sound, in a now obscure version starring the tenor Fernando Bertini as Canio, in his only film, and the San Carlo Opera Company.