"Laugh, clown" it's a line from the great tenor aria "Vesti la giubba", sung by Canio. It has almost become a common saying. Even an amazing interpreter of pop music like Italian singer Mina, has made her own modern version of it. This opera by Leoncavallo has always aroused admiration and great passions. It is believed to be the popular gangster Al Capone's favourite opera, as it is pictured in 1987 Brian De Palma's movie The Untouchables. In the scene we see Capone (Robert De Niro) crying on the notes of "Laugh, clown", moved deeply by Leoncavallo's aria and the news of one of his enemies' murder... Out of curiosity: the final line of the opera "The comedy is ended!" has been conferred to a torn Canio after he's killed his wife Nedda and her lover Silvio, but in the original sheet music it is actually said by Tonio, who is, in fact, the moral instigator of the insane murder. This is why these words gain further cynical and chilling strength.
Southern Italy, around 1865-70. An acting troupe arrives in a small town in Calabria. The villagers wait for the actors to exit their carriages. Canio, along with his wife Nedda, and two other actors, Beppe and Tonio, finally exit and greet the crowds. Canio is the head of the troupe and he invites everyone to that night's show. When someone from the crowd suggests that Tonio is in love with his young wife, Canio reacts angrily threatening whoever will try to seduce his wife. The actors are invited to the tavern for some drinks, leaving Nedda alone. Nedda, is concerned that her husband will find out about her unfaithfulness. She has, in fact, been having a secret affair. Tonio appears and confesses his love to her, but she rejects him. She does have a lover but it's Silvio, who now arrives and persuades her to run away with him that night. At first, Nedda refuses but when Silvio gets angry, she finally agrees. However, Tonio has seen them and now goes off to tell Canio. The jealous husband bursts in, Silvio escapes, and Nedda refuses to identify him, even when threatened with a knife. Beppe talks Canio out of it and suggests they get ready for the performance. Tonio tells Canio not to worry, because surely her lover will be at the play. Canio, now alone, sings the opera's most famous aria, the melancholy Vesti la giubba (Put on your costume).
The crowd waits for the play to begin. The story of the play resembles the real lives of the characters. In fact, Colombina's (played by Nedda) husband, Pagliaccio (Canio), is away and under her window, her lover Arlecchino (Beppe) serenades her. During his song, Taddeo (Tonio) enters and confesses his love to her. She laughs as she helps Arlecchino in the house through the window. Arlecchino gives Colombina a sleeping potion and tells her to give it to Pagliaccio that night, so they can run away together. The lovers are interrupted by Taddeo who gets in the room warning them that Pagliaccio is about to return. Arlecchino escapes out of the window just as Pagliaccio enters the room. When Colombina delivers the same line Canio heard her say in real life, hours before the play, he asks her the name of her lover. Nedda is still acting so she refers to Canio calling him Pagliaccio. He then explains that the white paint on his face isn't, in fact, makeup, but is colourless because of the pain and shame she has brought to him. The crowd, moved by his line, bursts into applause. Nedda tries again to bring him back into character, and says that she has been visited by Arlecchino. Canio, unable to return to the play, demands to know the name of her lover again. Finally, Nedda breaks character by swearing she would never say her lover's name. The audience is now aware that the events taking place before them are real. Silvio pushes his way to the stage but Canio stabs Nedda with a knife. The moment Silvio steps onto the stage, Canio stabs him too. As they lay dead on the stage floor, Canio says to the crowd: "The comedy is over".