Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci

The introduction to Freddie's "It's A Hard Life" is based on the aria "Vesti la giubba" from Leoncavallo's opera "I Pagliacci". The following text explains the aria and provides a synopsis for the opera.
The meaning of Canio's famout lament in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci "Vesti La Guibba" is, as they say in the theatre, " The Show Must Go On"... no matter what, the artist must put on his makeup, however he may feel inside, and give his best to the public. It is the law of the theatre. In the context of Leoncavallo's opera, the aria is delivered by the chief actor in a troup of strolling players, who are to present a comedy in a village in Southern Italy. Canio, having discovered that his young wife has taken a lover, must get ready for the evening's show. Though his heart is breaking, he cries, he must play the clown.

The plot of I Pagliacci

The action of the opera is set in Southern Italy on 15th August 1865, near Montalto in Calabria. The opera opens with the famous prologue "Behold... I stand before you" which the clown Tonio sings. Leoncavallo justifies in his prologue the fact that he is using a true happening from everyday life as the subject of his opera. He appeals to the audience to appreciate that clowns too are worthy of human sympathy.

The first act takes place on a village fairground, where a carnival stage has been set up.. The scene is marked by lively activity: Tonio beats the drums, peasants hurry along and welcome the approaching actors. The peasants give three cheers for Canio who, together with is wife Nedda, is sitting on one of the actors' carts. As head of the troup of itinerant actors, he invites the villagers to the evening. Canio's jealousy is aroused by the forwardness of the clown Tonio who tries to help Nedda down from the cart. He boxes Tonio's ears and the latter swears vengance. In the song "Always Joking" Canio, who on the stage has to play the cuckolded husband, makes it clear that in private life he would never accept any infidelity from his wife.

As the "Bell Chorus" sounds, the villagers enter the church. Only Nedda remains behind. Her "bad conscience" is reflected in her monologue "How Fiery Was His Eye". She fears Canio's rage: "If he should see through me". In the "Bird song" "How the little birds hover" Nedda envies the birds for their "freedom and happiness". Tonio arrives and in the ensuing duet confesses to Nedda that he loves her. She has "enchanted" him. Nedda rejects the loving professions of the "Clown" and strikes the importune actor with her whip. Burning with anger, Tonio swears he will take revenge.

After Tonio has left, Silvio steals in, a young farmer who is Nedda's lover. In the long and melodic duet "Nedda - Silvio - in this hour" the two tell of their love for each other. At first, from feelings of duty, Nedda refuses to leave her husband's troup and run away with Silvio. But when Silvio accuses her of no longer loving him she states her readiness to flee with him. Meanwhile, Tonio and Canio have crept back. Tonio had informed his employer of the rendezvous arranged by the two. Canop hears Nedda's exclamation "Tonight then ... and eternally yours". Silvio manages to escape. Canio tries to attack his wife with a dagger to make her reveal her lover's name. But Beppo holds him back and urges him to prepare for the impending performance. The gripping monologue "Act, now? When madness is eating me?" reveals the entire tragedy of Canio's situation. The ensuing orchestral intermezzo takes up again the themes from Canio's monologue.

The second act takes place in the evening. People stream in from all directions to see the actpr's "play". Nedda is taking the entrance money. She warns Silvio, who has come to see the show, about Canio's desire for revenge. The actors' play now begins: Columbine (Nedda) is yearningly awaiting her lover. The sound of guitar music is heard behind the stage: Harlequin (Beppo) is serenading his loved one "O Columbine, hear your true Harlequin". Columbine hesitates to receive her lover as the "fool" Taddeo (Tonio) is nearby. Taddeo, who has bought her a basket of food, tells Columbine that he loves her. But the girl spurns him. As Harlequin enters through a window, he withfraws. In the subsequent duet, Columbine and Harlequin exchange loving sentiments. Taddeo then reports that Pagliaccio (Canio), Columbine's husband, is approaching in a jealous rage. Harlequin departs. Pagliaccio accuses Columbine of having had a male visitor. Taddeo, with heavy sarcasm, says he thinks Columbine is as "pure as an angel". And now Canio departs from his role as Pagliaccio: filled with passion and anger he demands that Columbine/Nedda disclose her lover's name.

It slowly dawns on Nedda and the audience that the harlequinade is changing to deadly earnestness. When Canio draws a knife, Nedda seeks protection from the audience, but Canio stabs her to death. With her dying breath, Nedda reveals her lover's name. Silvio, who tries to dash to Nedda's aid, is also stabbed by Canio. Canio allows himself to be arrested without putting up any resistance.

All seems pretty true-to-life to me!