Before the opera begins, the Tonio steps before the curtain to say that the author has written about actors, who know the same joys and sorrows as other people.
Southern Italy, late 19th Century. Excited villagers mill about as a small theatrical road company arrives at the outskirts of a small town. Canio, head of the troupe, describes that night's offering, and when someone jokingly suggests that the hunchback Tonio is secretly enamored of his young wife Nedda. Canio replies that on stage all can be forgiven and forgotten, but in real life there might be a different ending. As vesper bells call the women to church, the men go to the tavern, leaving Nedda alone. Disturbed by her husband's vehemence and suspicious glances, she envies the freedom of the birds soaring overhead. Tonio appears and proclaims his love for her, but she scorns him. Enraged, he grabs her, and she lashes out with a whip, getting rid of him but inspiring an oath of vengeance. Nedda in fact does have a lover — the villager Silvio, who now arrives and persuades her to run away with him at midnight. But Tonio, who has seen them, hurries off to tell Canio. Before long the jealous husband bursts in on the guilty pair. Silvio escapes, and Nedda refuses to identify him, even when threatened with a knife. Beppe, another player, has to restrain Canio, and Tonio advises him to wait until evening to catch Nedda's lover. Alone, Canio sobs that he must play the clown though his heart is breaking.
The villagers, Silvio among them, assemble to see the play Pagliaccio e Colombina, a mirror of the previous events. Tonio plays the part of the stupid servant Taddeo, who declares his love for Columbine (played by Nedda). She scorns him to make way for her real lover, Harlequin (played by Beppe), who arrives for an intimate dinner. This cozy scene is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the husband, Pagliaccio (played by Canio). Harlequin escapes as Nedda promises to meet him later that night using the same words she used to Silvio that very afternoon. The tragic reality of the situation begins to over shadow the play. Forgetting the script, Canio demands that Nedda reveal her lover's name. She tries to continue with the play, the audience applauding the realism of the "acting." Maddened by her defiance, Canio stabs Nedda. With her last gasp Nedda cries, “Help me Silvio!” identifying her lover at last. Canio turns and stabs Silvio, who has rushed forward from the crowd to help her. Letting the knife fall at his feet Canio cries out one of the opera’s most chilling and ironic lines: "The comedy is ended."
Compiled from Opera News and Portland Opera