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Put on the costume,
Powder thy face.
The people pay to be here, and they want to laugh.
And if Harlequin shall steal thy Columbina,
Laugh, Pagliaccio, so the crowd will cheer!
Turn thy distress and tears into jest,
Thy pain and sobbing into a funny face - Ah!
Laugh, Pagliaccio,
At thy broken love!

Laugh at the grief that poisons thy heart!
English translation of Vesti la Giubba

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

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.

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 Pagliacci, 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 drought in Pagliacci's (Canio's) wine so that she can elope with her lover -- 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 announces "La Commedia è finita!" - "The play is over!"

Tropes used in Pagliacci include:
  • All Part of the Show
  • 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 corrobating evidence whatsoever.
  • BSOD Song: Vesti la giubba
  • Despair Event Horizon: In most performances, at the end of Vesti la giubba, Canio breaks down sobbing.
  • Green Eyed Monster Clown -- Tonio, who makes advances on a married woman and, failing that, makes sure that his victim's life is ruined.
  • If I Can't Have You, Then No One Will
  • Karma Houdini: 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. His schemes to ruin everyone who wronged him came off perfectly.
  • Money, Dear Boy: The reason Leancavallo wrote the opera. He was struggling to come up with a hit, and his publisher didn't have much confidence in his skills as a composer (though his skills as a librettist were evident enough). Then Leoncavallo saw the public was eating this verismo stuff up, and so he decided to jump on board.
  • No Fourth Wall -- a frightening, in-story example.
  • Plot Parallel
  • Popcultural Osmosis: You've heard Vesti la Giubba before.
  • Sad Clown: Canio
  • Show Within a Show with Plot Parallel
  • Yandere: Canio