Before the performance begins, Tonio addresses the audience directly: Look beyond the costumes and makeup — the drama you are about to experience is a tale of truth, both in the ecstasy of love and the brutality of rage.
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 vcommedia 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.
Courtesy of The Minnesota Opera