Antonio Pappano on Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci

Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are, without doubt, the biggest double act to come out of opera. Normally performed as a double bill (alongside each other), these two masterpieces define a unique style of opera that we call ‘Verismo’. 'Vero' (meaning 'true' in Italian), gives us the origin for this term. In the late 19th century, composers aimed to bring ‘realism’ to opera houses, telling stories of ordinary people and displaying their everyday triumphs and tragedies, with a particular emphasis on highlighting the darker side of life. Here, Music Director Antonio Pappano explains that in Verismo operas there is tremendous emotion, churned up, because of jealously, hatred, misunderstanding and the need to taste life, propelled by these extreme emotions. ‘Vesti La giubba’ from Pagliacci, is perhaps one of the most emotive pieces from the operatic repertoire. The aria comes at the end of Act I, when the character Canio, a theatre performer, has just discovered that his wife has been unfaithful. About to take to the stage, he painfully tells us that the show must go on – “Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart”. This aria epitomises the style of Verismo. It encapsulates the passion and raw emotion of this everyday clown and depicts the tragedy of a lost love.

Learning Outcomes

Analyse and evaluate music in aural and/or written form, using knowledge and understanding of musical elements, musical contexts and musical language to make critical judgements about repertoire.


Music Director of The Royal Opera Antonio Pappano takes us through the music of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci (aka, Cav & Pag), introducing us to the two operas’ unforgettable dramatic styles and themes.


1. Watch the clip and consider the following statement.

  • Realism was a post-Romanticism reaction that came about in the early to mid 19th century. Using art and literature as a starting point, research the term ‘Realism’ and discuss with your class the similarities between Realism and Verismo. (20 minutes)

2. Listen to and analyse the score of ‘Vesti la giubba’. (40 minutes)

Leoncavallo, composer of Pagliacci, was very specific when it came to employing dramatic technique in his singers’ performances.

  • Watch this performance, given by Paravotti (one of the all-time great tenors).

What words would you use to describe his performance and his emotions? What directions do you think he may have been given?

  • Listen to the performance once again and follow the score. What techniques/instructions can you spot?

A hint to help you get started – the performers’ instructions are often written in italics above the stave (see PDF below). Also consider dynamics and articulation and any other interrelated musical dimensions.

3. Create a list of all the techniques you can find in the score and create a vocabulary table of definitions. These will help you when it comes to creating your own compositions and informing the performer of what sort of emotions (if any) you want in the piece.


Listen to this old recording of Enrico Caruso performing ‘Vesti La giubba’. How does it compare to Pavarotti?

Meet the leading performers from Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci as they give us their thoughts on Verismo operas.