Pagliacci + Aleko

When Leoncavallo’s masterpiece is paired with the U.S. premiere of Rachmaninov’s Aleko, the result is a truly unique double bill of betrayal, heartbreak, and murder. These two short operas provide the perfect opportunity to behold an Italian classic, as well as an underappreciated Russian work—all in one blood-soaked sitting.


These two exciting one-act operas will be a double feature not to miss!

Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci premiered in Venice, 1897. Aleko is the first opera by Rachmaninov with a Russian libretto by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and is an adaptation Pushkin’s The Gypsies.



A traveling troupe of actors is heartily welcomed by the villagers. Canio encourages them to attend their show that evening, and villagers invite the players for a drink. Tonio lingers and is jibed as a result – he is really staying behind to woo Nedda, as in the commedia dell’arte play they will soon act out. Canio adopts a serious tone. Perhaps on the stage, Pagliaccio might resign himself to his fate if he were to discover Columbine with another man, but if Canio were to catch his wife in an indiscretion, the outcome would be very different.

Left alone, Nedda carefully ponders Canio’s words. It is as if he could read her very thoughts – indeed she longs for freedom and has taken on a lover, Silvio. Nedda is surprised by the sudden appearance of Tonio, who quickly confesses his secret desire for her. She cruelly repels his advances, equating him with the half-witted commedia character he plays.

Tonio exits in a fury and in comes Silvio, overflowing with affection and concern. The troupe shall soon be off, and he will no longer be able to hold Nedda in his arms. He encourages her to run away with him that very evening, after the play has concluded. Nedda hesitates – but only for a moment – then agrees to the plan. Tonio has led Canio back to witness the secret tryst from a distance. Silvio disappears unrecognized, but Canio has heard enough to berate his wife, demanding to know the name of her secret lover and punctuating his threats with the blade of a knife.

Beppe happens upon the scene in time to break off Canio’s attack. He demands that everyone steady their emotions as the show is about to begin. Canio laments his situation – he must put on the costume of Pagliaccio and make people laugh while inside he is ripped apart.

The villagers gather excitedly for the evening’s entertainment. The curtain rises with the four players in character: Nedda as Columbine, Beppe as Harlequin, Canio as Pagliaccio and Tonio as Taddeo, prepared to act out the classic tale of the cuckolded husband. Assured by the servant Taddeo that Pagliaccio is away, Columbine awaits the appearance of her true love, Harlequin. Taddeo takes this moment to pour out his true feelings to her, but she heartlessly brushes him off and as soon as Harlequin arrives, Taddeo is ordered away. The lovers dine together and agree to drug Pagliaccio so that they can be together. They are interrupted by Taddeo, who warns that Pagliaccio is making an unexpected return. Harlequin rushes out, and Columbine/Nedda’s parting words mimic exactly what she had said to Silvio earlier: “Till tonight, and I shall be yours forever.”

Pagliaccio observes the half-eaten meals and Columbine’s guilty demeanor. He demands to know her lover’s name, slipping out of his portrayal of Pagliaccio and into the reality of Canio’s world. Nedda is at first carefree, then defiant – if deemed unworthy, she demands to be set free. Again the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred, and blinded by rage over her constant denials, Canio stabs Nedda in cold blood. In her cry for help she blurts out Silvio’s name, but as he rushes to her side, Canio murders him as well. As in the Prologue, Tonio again addresses the audience with the final line – the comedy is over.



A band of gypsies has pitched its tents for the night on the bank of a river in the Caucusus mountains.  They sing of the freedom their nomadic existence gives.  An old gypsy tells the story of his lost love, Mariula who deserted him for another man, leaving him to raise their daughter, Zemfira.  Now grown, Zemfira has her own child. She lives with Aleko, a Russian who has abandoned civilization for the gypsy life, but who is not the father of her child. When he hears the old man’s tale, Aleko is outraged that he did not take revenge on Mariula. But Zemfira disagrees.  For her, as for her mother, love is free. Secretly, she has grown tired of Aleko’s possessiveness and now loves a young gypsy.  While the camp sleeps, Zemfira meets her new lover; kissing him passionately before returning to her own tent to look after her child.  Aleko enters and Zemfira taunts him, singing about her wild lover.  Alone, Aleko broods on the catastrophe of his relationship with Zemfira.  As dawn breaks, he catches Zemfira and her lover together.  In a jealous rage he kills them both.  Wakened by the struggle and murder, the gypsies gather.  Zemfira’s father spares Aleko’s life, since he took revenge on his faithless lover, as the old gypsy could not on his.  The gypsies cast Aleko out from them forever.

About the Composer


Leoncavallo received his musical education at the conservatory of his native Naples, going from there to Bologna, where he received a degree in literature. There, the great baritone Victor Maurel rescued him from a career as an itinerant pianist and brought the young Leoncavallo to the attention of the powerful Ricordi publishing family, who took options on his compositions. His first opera, I Medici, was written as the first of a Renaissance trilogy, but Ricordi turned it down. His next attempt was Pagliacci (1892), for which he wrote both the libretto and the music. The perfect embodiment of the verismo style of opera (characterized by everyday people in gritty, realistic settings), Pagliacci was published by Ricordi’s rival company, Sonzogno – and immediately made Leoncavallo famous.

About the Composer

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. Rachmaninov is widely considered as one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, one of the last great representatives of Romanticism in Russian classical music.

Early influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other Russian composers gave way to a personal style notable for its song-like melodicism, expressiveness and his use of rich orchestral colors. The piano is featured prominently in Rachmaninov’s compositional output, and through his own skills as a performer he explored the expressive possibilities of the instrument.