Late in 1891, Leoncavallo set out to compose an opera similar to, but surpassing, Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, one of the primary examples verismo (lusually translated as "realism"). Within five months, Leoncavallo had completed I Pagliacci (The Clowns), his second opera, but his first to be performed. It made him famous overnight, achieving such a success that his 20 other works for the stage are all but unknown in comparison. By the end of 1893, I Pagliacci had played everywhere from Mexico to Moscow.
The text of I Pagliacci, by the composer, is based on one of the cases encountered by Leoncavallo's father, a police magistrate in Naples. The actual case concerned a middle-aged actor who murdered his unfaithful wife, to which Leoncavallo added elements from the commedia dell'arte, such as the traveling actors, and naturalist ideas. He took the finished score to the Sonzogno publishing firm, which arranged the first performance, at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan, on May 21, 1892.
Consisting of a Prologue and two acts, I Pagliacci is a short opera. Leoncavallo initially cast the entire drama in a Prologue and one act, but the ecstatic reception of climactic aria "Vesti la giubba" (Put on your costume) prompted the composer to drop the curtain after it on subsequent nights, reserving the ensuing "play within a play" for the second act. "Vesti la giubba," with its heart-rendering "Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto!" (Laugh and be merry, though your love betrayed you), has become the most famous number from the opera and obligatory for star tenors.
Although in I Pagliacci Leoncavallo makes no attempt to deny Italian origins of the opera, he does draw on the French opéra lyrique and makes moderate use of Wagnerian Leitmotiv. The latter is evident in the static musical symbols for clowns: Canio's motive of doubt and the motive representing the love of Nedda and Silvio. This mixture of elements from different styles allows Leoncavallo to speak with a unique voice. Leoncavallo sets his sordid subject matter to melodic material of high quality and great variety, ranging from the simplest, folk song-like tunes to Canio's extremely passionate and lyrical "Vesti la giubba."
The fine line that can exist between fantasy and reality is the point of the second act, in which Canio, aware of his wife's infidelity, transfers his anger into the comedy in which he plays a part. The audience on the stage believes Canio is a great actor, while we know that his rage is real. Only when real deaths occur do the viewers onstage understand the "reality" they are witnessing. Leoncavallo then shatters this "reality" by having Tonio, as he does in the Prologue, address us, letting us know that what we have seen is a play and urging us to go home, for "the comedy is finished!"
Recordings or performances in which the character of Canio delivers the line "the comedy is finished," are incorrect and the result of tenor vanity.