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Pagliacci (Players, or Clowns) is an opera consisting of a prologue and two acts written and composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo. It recounts the tragedy of a jealous husband in a commedia dell'arte troupe. (Its name is sometimes incorrectly rendered as I Pagliacci with a definite article.)

Pagliacci premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milanmarker 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 created the role of Nedda in London in 1892, soon after its Italian premiere, and in New York in 1893.

It is the only opera of Leoncavallo that is still widely staged. Since 1893, it has usually been performed in a double bill with Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, a pairing referred to in the operatic world colloquially as "Cav and Pag". Although this pairing has long been the norm in most places, some theatres have been very late in staging these two works together. For example, the Mikhaylovsky Theatremarker in Saint Petersburgmarker presented the double bill for the first time only in February 2009.


Cover of the first edition of Pagliacci published by E.
Sonzogno, Milan, 1892.

Around 1890, when Cavalleria rusticana premiered, Leoncavallo was a little-known composer. After seeing its success, he decided to write a similar opera. It was to be in one act and composed in the verismo style. A lawsuit was brought against him for plagiarism of the libretto by Catulle Mendès, whose 1887 play entitled La Femme de Tabarin shares many themes with Pagliacci, namely the play-within-the-play and the clown murdering his wife. Leoncavallo's defense was that the plot of the opera was based on a true story he had witnessed as a child. He claimed that a servant had taken him to a commedia performance in which the events of the opera had actually occurred. He also claimed that his father, who was a judge, had led the criminal investigation, and that he had documents supporting these claims but none of this evidence has ever appeared. Today most critics agree that the libretto was indeed inspired by the Mendès play since Leoncavallo was living in Paris at the time of its premiere, and it is likely that he saw the play.

Pagliacci was an instant success and it remains popular today. It contains one of opera's most famous and popular arias, "Recitar! ... Vesti la giubba" (literally, To perform! ... Put on the costume, but more often known in English as On with the motley). One of Enrico Caruso's recordings of Vesti la giubba was the first record to sell one million copies. In 1907, Pagliacci became the first entire opera to be recorded, by the Puerto Rican tenor Antonio Paoli. In 1931, it became the first complete opera to be filmed with sound, in a now obscure version starring the tenor Fernando Bertini, in his only film, as Canio, and the San Carlo Opera Company.

As a staple of the standard operatic repertoire, it appears as number 14 on Opera America's list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America.


Role Role in Commedia Voice type Premiere Cast, May 21, 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 baritone Victor Maurel
Beppe, actor Arlecchino, Colombina's lover tenor
Silvio, Nedda's lover baritone Mario Ancona
Chorus of villagers


Place: Calabria, near Montaltomarker, 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 humans.

Act 1

At three o'clock in the afternoon, the commedia troupe enters the village, and the villagers cheer. Canio describes the night's performance: the troubles of Pagliaccio. He says the play will begin at "ventitre ore". This is an agricultural method of time-keeping, and 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, and Nedda is left alone.

Nedda, who is cheating on Canio, 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 surely give himself away at the play. Canio is left alone to put on his costume and prepare to laugh (Vesti la giubba - "Put on the costume").

Act 2

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 soon serenades her from beneath her window. Taddeo returns and confesses his love, but she mocks him and lets in Arlecchino 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 delivers a sleeping potion. 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 continue the play, calls Canio by his stage name "Pagliaccio" to remind him of the audience's presence. He answers with his arietta: No! Pagliaccio non son! and states that if his face is pale, it is not from the stage makeup but from the shame she has brought to him. The crowd, impressed by his emotional and very real performance, cheers him.

Nedda, trying again to continue the play, admits that she has been visited by the very innocent Arlecchino. Canio, furious and forgetting the play, demands the name of her lover. Nedda swears she will never tell him, and the crowd finally 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 stabs Silvio and declares: La Commedia è finita! - "The play is over!". Originally, Tonio had the final line, La commedia è finita! but it has traditionally been given to Canio. Leoncavallo himself sanctioned this substitution.


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." (surprisingly not assigned in the instrumentation page at the beginning) which leads us to assume that it is actually a tam-tam (partly because Mascagni used one, although to much greater effect, at the final moments of Cavalleria rusticana). It is given three strokes right after Tonio announces "The comedy is over"


Paired with Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana
Year Cast
(Canio, Nedda, Tonio)
Opera House and Orchestra
1954 Giuseppe Di Stefano,
Maria Callas,
Tito Gobbi

Tullio Serafin,
La Scalamarker Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: EMI Classics
Cat: 0724358683028
1960 Franco Corelli,
Lucine Amara,
Tito Gobbi

Lovro von Matačić
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: EMI Classics
Cat: 0077776396750
1976 Luciano Pavarotti,
Mirella Freni,
Ingvar Wixell

Giuseppe Patanè,
National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: Decca Classics
Cat: 00289 414 5902
1981 Plácido Domingo,
Teresa Stratas,
Juan Pons

Georges Prêtre
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
(Film - directed by Franco Zeffirelli)

DVD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 0044007 34033

Paired with Puccini's Il Tabarro
Year Cast
(Canio, Nedda, Tonio)
Opera House and Orchestra
1994 Luciano Pavarotti,
Teresa Stratas,
Juan Pons

James Levine,
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
DVD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 00440 073 4024

Stand-alone recordings:

Year Cast
(Canio, Nedda, Tonio)
Opera House and Orchestra
1934 Beniamino Gigli,

Franco Ghione,
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: Naxos
1951 Richard Tucker,
Lucine Amara,
Giuseppe Valdengo

Fausto Cleva
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
LP: Columbia Masterworks Records
1953 Jussi Björling,
Victoria de los Ángeles,
Leonard Warren

Renato Cellini
RCA Victor Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: EMI Classics
Cat: 0724358565027
1965 Carlo Bergonzi,
Joan Carlyle,
Giuseppe Taddei

Herbert von Karajan,
La Scala Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD:
Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 449 727-2

1971 Plácido Domingo,
Montserrat Caballé,
Sherrill Milnes

Nello Santi
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: RCA

Note: "Cat:" is short for catalogue number by the label company; "ASIN" is product reference number.

In popular culture

  • In the August 14, 1939, episode of The Shadow, "The Tenor With a Broken Voice", the plot revolved around murders occurring during a production of Pagliacci. The killer turned out to be the former star of the production, who lost his voice during a performance and wanted revenge.
  • Billie Holiday sang a song entitled "The Masquerade is Over" which included the lyrics, "I guess I'll have to play Pagliacci and get myself a clown's disguise / And learn to laugh like Pagliacci with tears in my eyes."
  • The 1954 song "Mr. Sandman" contains the line, "Give him a lonely heart like Pagliacci, and lots of wavy hair like Liberace."
  • Spike Jones and the City Slickers made a recording included on their album "Spike Jones Is Murdering the Classics!" which was titled "Pal-Yat-Chee (Pagliacci)". The vocals for this recording were from famed stars Homer and Jethro, and told of attending a play while in "the city" which they thought would be a western, but when the lights came up, "97 people sung, without a horse in sight." A distorted version of the plot of Pagliacci is covered in the lyrics as the two recount the proceedings, complain about the length of the play and the bad weather outside that forces them to stay and watch to the end.
  • The January 26, 1966, episode of Batman, "The Joker is Wild", contained a scene in which the Joker appeared in a performance of Pagliacci. This scene contained the cliffhanger of the episode, and so was continued on the next episode, "Batman is Riled."
  • Pagliacci is referenced in the classic 1960s Northern soul song, "I can't get away" by Bobby Garrett, in the line, "Just like Pagliacci, the clown, sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down."
  • Pagliacci is referenced in the 1970 song "The Tears of a Clown" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in the line, "Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid."
  • In the 1987 film The Untouchables, Al Capone (played by Robert DeNiro), is attending a performance of the opera, openly crying, when his henchman, Frank Nitti, enters and tells him that he has killed Chicago Police Officer Jim Malone. Capone then stops crying and begins to quietly laugh.
  • Pagliacci is mentioned in a 1989 song, "Your Bozo's Back Again", by Ray Stevens. The song compares the singer to a true fool, a clown, since he constantly returns to an unfaithful lover. The line states: "I might as well wear grease paint, the way I play my part, but like Pagliacci, I'm playing with a real, live broken heart."
  • In Will Eisner's world famous comic strip The Spirit, one of the episodes is titled "Palyachi, The Killer Clown", released July 28, 1940. Eisner took the name from Leoncavallo's opera.
  • In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic book limited series Watchmen (as well as its 2009 film adaptation), one of the characters, Rorschach, writes in his journal of a joke he once heard involving Pagliacci, in response to the death of another character, The Comedian. The joke consists of a man going to a doctor and complaining of depression. The doctor tells him to go to the show of the "great clown Pagliacci" in order to cheer him up. However, the man breaks down and cries, telling the doctor that he, in fact, is the clown Pagliacci. It is also a pop cultural reference to the aforementioned episode of The Spirit. (Coming full circle with these pop culture Pagliacci references, this quote also reflects the oft-repeated lament that the perennially-depressed Groucho Marx was the only person in the world who didn't have Groucho Marx to cheer him up, as can be heard in the documentary The Unknown Marx Brothers, among other places. )
  • On an episode of the American sitcom Seinfeld entitled "The Opera", Jerry and Elaine attend a performance of Pagliacci where their stalker "Crazy" Joe Davola disguises himself as Pagliaccio the clown to seek revenge on them.
  • On December 11, 2005, The Simpsons premiered a new episode which consisted of the Simpson family going to Italy, and after a twist of events, ending up on stage for a Pagliacci show at the Colosseummarker, with Sideshow Bob, along with his wife and son, trying to kill the whole family as part of the act.
  • The animated television series The Batman featured an episode in its second season in which Bruce Wayne not only attends the Opera at the beginning but later on the Joker steals the original Pagliacci costume. The opening scene features Detective Yin's capture by the Joker and features music from the opera as does much of the episode with the Joker singing the aria "Vesti La Giubba" later on.
  • In an episode of Hey Arnold! titled What's Opera Arnold Harold comes out dressed as Pagliacci and sings "I'm a big ugly clown-o, A big fat ugly clown-o." then sobs and walks offstage.
  • In The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, the famous laughing sob of the 'Vesti la giubba' aria is performed by an Opera-singing character named Bobby Shaflett.
  • In part four of the Doctor Who story The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, the Doctor tells the entertainment-addicted Gods of Ragnarok that "La commedia e finite [sic]" and that he will no longer entertain them.
  • The beginning of the song It's a Hard Life by Queen is based on Pagliacci's aria Vesti La Giubba. The lyrics "Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto!" were replaced on the song with the phrase "I don't want my freedom, there's no reason for living...".



  1. Mikhaylovsky Theatre
  2. San Francisco Opera Guild, 2003; Sansone, M., 1989
  3. The Durbeck Archive
  4. OPERA America's "The Top 20" list of most-performed operas
  5. Alan Moore(w), Dave Gibbons(i). Watchmen. (1987). DC Comics 0930289234


  • Pagliacci Libretto in English translation
  • San Francisco Opera Guild, 2003, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci: A Teacher's Guide and Resource Book (accessed 23 May 2007)
  • Sansone, Matteo, 1989, 'The Verismo of Ruggero Leoncavallo: A Source Study of Pagliacci', Music & Letters, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Aug., 1989).
  • Sims, Michael, 2007, 'Cavalleria rusticana, I Pagliacci, and the Verismo Style', Programme notes, Concert Opera Boston (accessed 21 May 2007)

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