The action is set in Montalto (Calabria), on 15th August, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the year 1865 Tonio, dressed as Taddeo, is standing on stage in front of the curtain and explaining to the audience that he is the Prologue. With a few, well-chosen words he tells the public that on stage they will see traditional masks, but the story that will be told is not fiction: the audience will see a glimpse of real life. A colourful troupe of travelling players arrives in the village square. They are about to stage a show in the festival theatre. The curtain is still closed and we see a poster with the title of the play that is about to begin: 'Pagliaccio' (The Clown). The troupe is made up of Canio, the leader, Nedda, his young wife and the other two actors Peppe and the hunchback Tonio.
Tonio makes advances to Nedda, who is very jealous of his young wife whom he has taken from the streets when she was an orphan, gives Tonio a clout. Some of the villagers invite Canio and Peppe to the inn and make fun of Canio's jealousy. Canio replies that he would not hstitate to kill Nedda if she were to betray him. While the village people go into church, Nedda is left alone. She worried and uneasy: she is secretly in love with Silvio, a young man of the district. Tonio comes up and importunes her again. Nedda laughs at him, mocking his hunch and then picks up a whip and strikes his face. Tonio swears that he will make revenge. Silvio now arrives and persuades Nedda to run away with him that night after the show.
But Tonio overhears them and runs off to tell Canio. Canio arrives but Silvio manages to get away. Canio confronts Nedda and, threatening her with a knife, orders her to reveal her lover's name. Nedda refuses and Canio is about to kill her when Peppe stops him, calms him down and talks him into getting ready, since the audience is gathering and the show must go on. The actors enter the theatre, while Canio, overwhelmed by the thought that he must make the audience laugh, is in a state of dark despair. The audience, including Silvio, begin to take their seats in the theatre, ready to watch the play. Nedda steps into the auditorium, dressed as Colombine, moving through the rows with a plate to collect the price of the seats
she approaches Silvio and renews her promise to run away with him. The plot of the play is nothing other than the story of what has really happened in the first part of the opera.
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