Pagliacci is an Italian opera in a prologue and two acts, with music and libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo. It is the only Leoncavallo opera that is still widely staged. Pagliacci premiered at the Teatro Del Verme in Milan on May 21, 1892, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, 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.
Leoncavallo claimed that he took the inspiration for the story of Pagliacci from a real-life incident from his childhood. This was a murder in 1865, where the victim was a Leoncavallo family servant, Gaetano Scavello. The murderer was Gaetano D'Alessandro, with Luigi D'Alessandro, Gaetano’s brother, as an accomplice to the crime. This incident resulted from a serious of perceived romantic entanglements involving Scavello, Luigi D'Alessandro, and a village girl with whom both men were infatuated. Leoncavallo’ father, a judge, was the presiding magistrate over the criminal investigation. Leoncavallo originally titled his story Il pagliaccio (The Clown). However, 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 away from Canio alone to include Tonio (his own role).
“Vesti la giubba” (Put on the costume) is the most famous tenor aria from the opera “Pagliacci”. It’s performed at the conclusion of the first act, when Canio discovers his wife’s infidelity, but must nevertheless prepare for his performance as Pagliaccio (Clown), because “the show must go on”. The aria is often regarded as one of the most moving in the operatic repertoire of the time. The pain of Canio is portrayed in the aria and exemplifies the entire notion of the "tragic clown": smiling on the outside but crying on the inside. This is still displayed today, as the clown motif often features the painted-on tear running down the cheek of the performer.
The 1904 recording by Enrico Caruso was the first million-selling record in history.
This aria is often used in popular culture, and has been featured in many renditions, mentions, and spoofs.
Before the opera begins, the clown Tonio steps before the curtain to say that the author has written about actors, who know the same joys and sorrows as other people.
Southern Italy, around 1865-70. Excited villagers mill about as a small theatrical road company arrives at the outskirts of a Calabrian town. Canio, head of the troupe, describes that night's offering, and when someone jokingly suggests that the hunchback Tonio is secretly enamoured of his young wife, Canio warns he will tolerate no flirting with Nedda. As vesper bells call the women to church, the men go to the tavern, leaving Nedda alone. Disturbed by her husband's vehemence and suspicious glances, she envies the freedom of the birds soaring overhead. Tonio appears and indeed tries to make love to her, but she scorns him. Enraged, he grabs her, and she lashes out with a whip, getting rid of him but inspiring an oath of vengeance. Nedda in fact does have a lover — Silvio, who now arrives and persuades her to run away with him at midnight. But Tonio, who has seen them, hurries off to tell Canio. Before long the jealous husband bursts in on the guilty pair. Silvio escapes, and Nedda refuses to identify him, even when threatened with a knife. Beppe, another player, has to restrain Canio, and Tonio advises him to wait until evening to catch Nedda's lover. Alone, Canio sobs that he must play the clown though his heart is breaking (Recitar... Vesti la giubba).
The villagers, Silvio among them, assemble to see the play Pagliaccio e Colombina. In the absence of her husband, Pagliaccio (played by Canio), Colombina (Nedda) is serenaded by her lover Arlecchino (Beppe), who dismisses her buffoonish servant, Taddeo (Tonio). The sweethearts dine together and plot to poison Pagliaccio, who soon arrives; Arlecchino slips out the window. With pointed malice, Taddeo assures Pagliaccio of his wife's innocence, firing Canio's real-life jealousy. Forgetting the script, he demands that Nedda reveal her lover's name. She tries to continue with the play, the audience applauding the realism of the "acting." Maddened by her defiance, Canio stabs Nedda and then Silvio, who has rushed forward from the crowd to help her. Canio cries out that the comedy is ended (la commedia è finita!)
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