Both operas take place in the same Sicilian village at the foothill of Mt. Etna. In the background is a typical vista of Mt. Etna and the arid Sicilian terrain. Stage right is the entrance and façade of the village church, gothic stone. Stage left is a railcar that has been converted to a tavern. Along the upstage perimeter is a stone wall revealing the vista of Etna.
Cavalleria Rusticana takes place in 1937. Fascist Italy. The fascist flag and soldiers guard the town. A portrait of Il Duce is prominently displayed on the tavern.
Pagliacci takes place in 1946. Liberated Italy, complete with the American flag and a few American GI’s.
Turiddu and Lola were childhood sweethearts. He was sent to fight Mussolini’s Abbysinia (Ethiopia) campaign in 1935, and was believed to have been killed. Lola, in turn, marries the wealthy merchant Alfio. When Turiddu returns to the village and discovers Lola is married, he takes up with Santuzza, who is carrying his child and who he has promised to marry.
The opera opens with Turiddu singing a beautiful serenade to Lola. The townspeople are preparing for Easter celebration. Santuzza enters the town square and confronts Turiddu’s mother, Lucia. Lucia tells her Turiddu has gon to Francofonte to work, which Santuzza declares is not true; that he is with Lola. After the traditional Easter procession, Santuzza confronts Turiddu who denies his affair with Lola and tells her he is not her slave. Rejected, she curses him. Santuzza meets Alfio, who is late for Easter service and tells him of the affair. Alfio pledges to restore his honor. After Easter service, the townspeople are in the courtyard celebrating. Turiddu leads them in a joyful drinking song which is interrupted when Alfio refuses to drink with him. At this, Turiddu challenges Alfio in the traditional Sicilian way – with a embrace and a bite on Alfio’s ear. The challenge accepted, the men prepare for a fight to the death. Before going to meet Alfio, Turiddu begs his mother to embrace Santuzza as her own. The opera comes to its tragic end when screams are heard from the orchard, “They’ve killed Turiddu”!
From the opening lines of Pagliacci, Leoncavallo treats us to something new in opera. The curtain is closed, and out comes one of the actors, not yet in full costume, his make-up not quite finished, to tell us that what we are about to witness on stage is true. He says that all human emotions are exposed in this story, and that he, as the Prologue, is here to prepare us for the tears we are about to witness.
PART I. The curtain rises on a village square. The townspeople are gathering to greet a traveling troupe of actors who are to perform for them that evening. The actors perform the traditional commedia dell’arte – an improvised comedy of domestic infidelity between the lovely but unfaithful Columbine, her husband Pantalone (Pagliacco), the lover Harlequin, and the valet Zanni (Taddeo) who betrays them all. The leader of the group of actors, Canio, greets the crowd and tells them they are in for a grand spectacle that evening. When someone jokingly suggests that he should keep his eye on his young wife, Nedda, Canio warns he will tolerate no flirting with his wife. The village men go to the tavern with Canio, leaving Nedda alone. Disturbed by her husband’s violent temper and threats, she envies the freedom of the birds soaring overhead. Tonio enters and movingly tells her that he loves her. She laughs at him, saying his soul is as deformed as his body. Furious, he grabs her, but Nedda takes a whip and runs him off. Nedda in fact does have a lover—Silvio, who has come to persuade her to run away with him at midnight. Tonio, overhears their pledge and hurries off to tell Canio, and have his revenge on Nedda. The jealous husband bursts in on the lovers. Silvio escapes and Nedda refuses to identify him even when threatened with a knife. Beppe, another player, has to restrain Canio, and Tonio tells him to wait until evening to catch Nedda’s lover. Alone and broken hearted at the betrayal of his wife, Canio laments that he must play the clown, even while his heart is breaking.
An Intermezzo unites Act I to Act II
PART II. The villagers, Silvio among them, assemble to see the play Pagliaccio e Colombina. Beppe, dressed as “Harlequin,” appears onstage to greet Nedda, dressed as “Columbine.” The sweethearts get rid of the meddling clown “Taddeo” (played by Tonio) and plot to poison “Pagliaccio”—“Columbine’s” husband. Canio bursts in as “Pagliaccio” and “Harlequin” quickly departs. Thrown into a theatrical situation that mirrors his own life, Canio begins to lose control. Forgetting the script, he demands that Nedda reveal her lover’s name. She tries to continue with the play as the audience applauds what they think is the realism of the show. Taking a knife from the table Canio stabs Nedda to the horror of the crowd who realize that what they thought was improvisation is real. Silvio rushes to the stage to save her. Canio realizes Silvio has been Nedda’s lover and turn and kills him. As the distraught clown weeps over his wife, Tonio then announces to the audience: “The comedy is over.”