Before the opera begins, Tonio the clown steps before the curtain to announce that the author has written a true story and that even actors and clowns have the same joys and sorrows as other people.
Villagers in a town in Calabria gather around a small theatrical company that has just arrived. Canio, the head of the troupe, describes the night’s offerings. When one of the villagers suggests that Tonio is secretly courting Canio’s wife, Nedda, Canio warns that he will tolerate no flirting off stage. Vesper bells call the women to church and the men to the tavern, leaving Nedda alone. Disturbed by her husband’s jealousy, she envies the freedom of the birds in flight. Tonio tries to force himself on her. She beats him back, and he swears revenge. In fact, Nedda does have a lover – Silvio, who appears and persuades her to run away with him after the evening’s performance. Tonio overhears this and hurries off to tell Canio. The jealous husband bursts in on the guilty pair, but Silvio runs away before Canio can identify him. Nedda, even when threatened with a knife, refuses to reveal the man’s name. Beppe, another clown, restrains Canio, and Tonio advises him to wait until the evening’s performance to catch Nedda’s lover. Alone, Canio bitterly reflects that he must play the clown while his heart is breaking.
The villagers, including Silvio, assemble to see the commedia dell’arte performance. In the play, Harlequin serenades Columbina (played by Nedda) and dismisses her buffoonish servant Taddeo (played by Tonio). The two lovers dine together and plot to poison Columbina’s husband Pagliaccio (played by Canio), who soon arrives. Harlequin slips away. With pointed malice, Taddeo assures Pagliaccio of his wife’s innocence, which ignites Canio’s jealousy. Forgetting the play, he demands Nedda tell him the name of her lover. She tries to continue with the play, the audience enthralled by its realism. Enraged, Canio stabs Nedda and Silvio, who rushes to help her. Tonio announces to the horrified villagers that the comedy is ended.
Reprinted courtesy of Opera News.