Follow TV Tropes


Theatre / Pagliacci

Go To

Put on your costume,
And powder your face.
The people pay to be here, and they want to laugh.
And if Harlequin shall steal your Columbina,
Laugh, clown, so the crowd will cheer!
Turn your distress and tears into jest,
Your pain and sobbing into a funny face — Ah!

Laugh, clown,
At your broken love!
Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!

English translation of Vesti la Giubba

A cornerstone of Italian verismo ("reality") opera, Pagliacci is composer/librettist Ruggiero Leoncavallo's first opera, and his only one still regularly performed nowadays. The title is Italian for "Clowns".

Before the opera opens, the hunchback clown Tonio delivers a lengthy prologue: don't treat us as make-believe; we are people of flesh and blood, and art is created with real love and real tears.

The story revolves around a clown, Canio. One day, Canio's troupe of Commedia dell'Arte comes to town, and will put on the peoples' favorite show that evening. When the rest of the troupe go away for a drink, Canio sits by himself, musing how he will not allow himself to be cuckolded and humiliated like Pagliaccio, the character he will be playing. Meanwhile, his wife Nedda worries that Canio may find out about her little secret, and her discomfort deepens with the appearance of Tonio, who professes his love. Nedda spurns his advance and mocks at his ugly appearance. Tonio tries to force himself onto Nedda, but she grabs a whip and strikes him. Tonio swears vengeance.

As Tonio leaves, the villager Silvio, Nedda's sweet-talking darling, comes by. He urges her to elope that night; she is ambivalent. The two share a tender moment together. Of course, Tonio sees all these - and he drags Canio in just in time.

Furious, Canio demands the name of the guy, but Nedda refuses to speak. Other actors urge Canio to calm down.

In front of a large audience during the play - which involves how Colombina (played by Nedda), under the knowing eyes of her servant Taddeo (Tonio), slips a sleeping drug in Pagliaccio's (Canio's) wine so that she can elope with her lover Arlecchino (Peppe, the fourth member of the troupe) — Canio derails the comedy to demand that Nedda comes clean. The crowd marvel at how emotive the performance is, but Nedda knows she is in deep trouble. She desperately tries to keep the play on track, which only fuels Canio's anger. He stabs Nedda on stage. Her dying scream gives away the name of her lover, whom Canio then kills. His vengeance done, Canio note  announces "La Commedia è finita!" — "The comedy is finished!"

Tropes found in Pagliacci

  • All Part of the Show: The audience initially reacts with delight at how genuine Pagliaccio's performance is until he becomes progressively unhinged and they realize he's not acting.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: The closing line was originally given to Tonio instead of Canio, as he had been the one to engineer the fall of all three of his rivals (Canio for generally shabby treatment, Nedda for rejecting his advances, and Silvio for being Nedda's preference) without ever getting his own hands dirty.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: Leoncavallo claimed the opera was based on a real case that his father dealt with, but there is no corroborating evidence whatsoever.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In some adaptations Tonio after watching Canio killing his wife and her lover gleefuly turns to the audience gloating that "The comedy is finished."
  • Broken Tears: Canio is often heard sobbing at the end of his iconic aria "Vesti la giubba." The sobbing isn't called for in the libretto, but it's a firm tradition, and depending on the singer it can be very undignified.
  • BSoD Song: "Vesti la giubba", as Canio is wrought with turmoil over how to process his wife's infidelity while still having to prepare for their performance.
  • The Chessmaster: Tonio manages to manipulate the others into doing what he wants to destroy their own lives without having to get his own hands dirty.
  • Crossover: The 2018 San Francisco Opera production not only gives this opera a Setting Update to Buenos Aires in the 1920's, but also incorporates characters from Cavalleria Rusticana, with Santuzza and Mamma Lucia attending Canio's play and Mamma Lucia shouting "La commedia è finita" instead of either Canio or Tonio.
  • Crystal-Ball Scheduling: It works out very badly that Canio and Nedda are slated to play in a comedy about an unfaithful wife and jealous husband right after Canio discovers Nedda’s infidelity.
  • Cultural Translation: One of the first English translations replaced "Pagliaccio" with "Punchinello", presumably because the latter was more familiar with English-speaking readers through his puppet derivative "Mr. Punch" - and also because in the Signature Scene for instance, "Laugh, Punchinello" is much closer metrically to "Ridi, Pagliaccio" than the literal English "Laugh, Clown". But Punchinello (which is really the full Anglicized form of his real name "Pulcinella") and Pagliaccio are different stock characters in commedia dell'arte, so it's slightly misleading.
  • A Deadly Affair: When Canio discovers his wife Nedda is having an affair, he kills her and her lover on stage in the middle of a performance. This is when the audience realizes that what they thought was great acting was all too real.
  • Despair Event Horizon: In most performances, at the end of Vesti la giubba, Canio breaks down sobbing.
  • Dramatic Irony: In-universe, the roles in the performance on this night have deadly consequences when Nedda's character says goodbye to her character's lover in the same way the real Nedda did to her real adulterous lover. Having a real-life husband and wife with an affair going on play a husband and wife with an affair has never been so deadly.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Tonio, a baritone role.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Tonio, who makes advances on a married woman and, after being rejected, makes sure that her life, her husband's life, and her lover's life end in ruin.
  • Hostility on the Set: Invoked with the Show Within a Show, finally leading Canio to snap.
  • If I Can't Have You…: The stance of both Tonio and Canio towards Nedda.
  • Ironic Echo: Nedda's character says goodbye to her lover in the play with the same phrase Canio heard her use to her lover in real life.
  • Karma Houdini: Tonio. His schemes to ruin everyone who wronged him come off perfectly and he gets no comeuppance whatsoever. In the 1994 staging with Luciano Pavarotti as Canio, immediately after the closing line, the camera turns to Tonio on the stage, laughing his head off.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Tonio plays on everyone's emotions and ultimately succeeds into getting all his rivals to get revenge on each other for him. In most productions he even slips the knife into Canio's hand at an opportune moment.
  • Monster Clown:
    • Unbuilt Trope with Canio. It's still meant to be taken as ironic and frightening that Canio is depressed and homicidal despite being a clown.
    • Played closer to a straight version with Tonio, a clown who is also an attempted rapist and all-around Manipulative Bastard.
  • No Fourth Wall: A frightening, in-story example, as it concludes with Silvio trying to come to Nedda's aid when Canio stabs her, only to be fatally stabbed himself.
  • Non-Ironic Clown: Zig-Zagged. Dramatic Irony arises from the fact that Canio is engaged to play his clown role non-ironically, which ultimately he isn't able to do because he's a Sad Clown, leading him to snap and commit a double murder more like a Monster Clown.
  • Plot Parallel: See Show Within a Show.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: You've heard Vesti la Giubba before.
    • Enrico Caruso's early gramophone recording in 1907 became the first record ever to sell over one million copies, making Caruso the first superstar recording artist.
    • This play is a favorite theme for The Joker for his crimes.
    • The Penguin’s favorite opera is Pagliacci. While the story of killer clown also appeals to the above rogue, Pagliacci is the story of a man betrayed by the woman he loves who then flies into a murderous rage when confronted by the truth. No wonder Mr. Cobblepot can’t help singing along.
    • The matching notes of the lyrics, "Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto! (Laugh, clown, at your broken love!)" were invoked by Queen in the opening of their 1984 song, "It's A Hard Life".
    • One of Rorschach's monologues in Watchmen refers to a depressed man who whose doctor suggested that going to see the clown Pagliacci would cheer him up. The man responded "But doctor, you don't understand. I am Pagliacci."
  • Sad Clown: Pagliaccio serves as the Trope Codifier.
  • The Show Must Go On: This trope is invoked to provide the first act climax, as Canio has just discovered his wife's infidelity - but is told to get ready for their show, as the troupe can't afford to disappoint the customers.
  • Show Within a Show: Canio's and Nedda's performance is layered with Dramatic Irony due to the plot being nigh-identical to their "real-life" troubles.
  • Standard Snippet: "Vesti la Giubba" is one of the best known of all Opera arias, and as seen throughout the page has been very widely quoted, played, and referenced in pop culture, especially in moments of high drama or dramatic irony.
  • Wife Husbandry: Towards the end of the opera, Canio reveals that that he found Nedda as a starving orphan, took her in and gave her a name before marrying her himself.
  • Yandere: Canio is driven to murder Nedda over her infidelity.