This production of the double bill, as conceived by José Cura, takes place in the same neighborhood, among the same villagers, including characters from both operas.
Turiddu, son of the tavern owner Mamma Lucia, has returned from military service to find his fiancée, Lola, married to a prosperous wagon owner, Alfio. As revenge against Lola’s betrayal, Turiddu has seduced Santuzza, hoping to make Lola jealous. As a result, Lola has taken up with Turiddu again in an adulterous affair, leaving Santuzza heartbroken.
As the curtain rises, Silvio arrives to open the bar. He discovers his lover, the comedienne Nedda, in the company of her fellow actors, putting up posters advertising their circus. Nedda is married to Canio, a once famous clown.
As Silvio prepares the tables for the Easter Sunday customers, Turiddu is heard praising Lola. Santuzza witnesses Lola’s joy upon hearing Turiddu’s song. Villagers arrive in the square, some taking seats at Lucia’s bar for breakfast. Alfio enters, extolling the pleasures of his wandering life as a wagoner and boasting publicly of his love for Lola and of her fidelity.
Santuzza leaves her house to go to Easter Mass, but she is prevented from entering the church. She has been excommunicated for her affair with Turiddu. Santuzza confides in Mamma Lucia, telling her all that has happened. When Turridu arrives, Santuzza accosts him. He tries in vain to deny his affair with Lola, when she purposefully passes in front of them, leading to a caustic exchange between the two women. Santuzza and Turiddu engage in a storm of recriminations, before Santuzza tells him she is going to have his child. Horrified and afraid, Turiddu breaks away and goes into church.
Santuzza reveals to Alfio that his wife has been unfaithful to him, before realizing that Alfio’s fury will doom them all. As worshippers emerge from church, Turiddu publicly toasts Lola’s “loves.” In accordance with established ritual, Alfio and Turiddu agree to a duel. To shield Santuzza from future recrimination, Turiddu tells everyone that he had promised to marry her to restore her honor. Turiddu bids farewell to his mother and leaves. Santuzza delivers the news that Turiddu has been killed. Lola echoes the tragic news in despair.
On the following day, an elegant man emerges from the mournful procession for Turiddu’s coffin. He is Leoncavallo, the composer of Pagliacci, who expresses the credo of the verismo movement. He is supported by Mascagni, his fellow composer, who has been watching the events from the very beginning: “The author has been inspired by real life to tell a story about people with the same joys and sorrows as other human beings.” Time stops as Leoncavallo expresses his thoughts.
Six months later, a company of touring actors arrives. The head of the troupe, Canio, announces that the performance will begin at the “23rd hour,” that is, one hour before sunset. When a person in the crowd jokingly suggests that Tonio, a fellow actor, is courting Canio’s wife, Nedda, behind his back, Canio angrily warns the crowd that the joke isn’t funny. Canio goes off to Mamma Lucia’s bar to enjoy a drink. People gather in church, leaving Nedda alone with her thoughts.
While Silvio sets the tables, Nedda expresses her dream to be free as soaring birds, sweetly provoking her young lover. Soon afterward, Tonio, who has witnessed Nedda’s reverie, declares his passion for her, but, when Nedda mocks him, he tries to force himself on her. She manages to strike him. Silvio arrives and urges Nedda to flee with him. Tonio spies on the lovers and reports the tryst to Canio. A chase ensues, but Silvio manages to escape before Canio can recognize him. Tonio advises Canio to wait until evening for vengeance. Alone, Canio laments his lot as an actor: he must laugh through his tears for the audience’s amusement. Mamma Lucia, who has witnessed his despair, consoles him with a drink.
The villagers assemble to see the play. Taking advantage of the commotion, Nedda exchanges a few words with Silvio, assuring him of their midnight elopement. The commedia, based on the familiar tale of Pagliaccio and Colombina, begins. In the absence of her husband Pagliaccio (played by Canio), Colombina (Nedda) is serenaded by her lover, Arlecchino (Beppe). Together they drive away her servant, the buffoon Taddeo (Tonio), and plot to poison Pagliaccio, whose sudden return interrupts their flirting. After Arlecchino has escaped, Taddeo, with pointed malice, assures Pagliaccio of his wife’s “innocence.” Obsessed with jealousy, Canio forgets he is onstage and demands that Nedda name her lover. She tries desperately to continue the comedy, but the audience begins to comprehend the reality of the situation. Maddened by her continued defiance, Canio first stabs Nedda and then Silvio, who has rushed forward to help her. In absolute despair, Lucia cries, “La commedia è finita." (“The comedy is over.”)