Ruggero Leoncavallo’s well-known opera «I Pagliacci,» which is to be staged at the Herod Atticus Theater this Saturday, September 26, is the largest production that the Athens Festival has commissioned during its 50-year existence. Under the direction of Franco Zeffirelli, the opera features an international cast with more than 200 people on stage. The main parts will be interpreted by Alberto Cupido, Veronica Villarroel, Ko Seng Hyoun, Mark Milhofer and Luca Salsi, while the Greek National Opera Orchestra and Choir will also participate, under the baton of Massimiliano Stefanelli. There is a long story behind the performances, as Zeffirelli himself explained at a recent press conference. «It all started when we decided to stage ‘Medea’ in Sicily as part of a collaboration between the Theater of Syracuse and the Hellenic Festival. People say that Greeks are all words and no action, but Italians are even worse,» joked the celebrated Italian director. «In the end, nothing happened and we started thinking of transferring ‘Medea’ to the Herod Atticus Theater. But the idea didn’t excite me. I wanted to do something more challenging, a kind of sacrilege: I wanted to present a work full of dropouts, who would shine on the ancient marbles. That is how Leoncavallo’s ‘I Pagliacci’ came about. Leoncavallo claimed that the plot is based on a real story that took place in Calabria when he was a child and that his father Vicenzo, who was a judge there, had ruled on the case.» For Zeffirelli, that «sacrilege» wasn’t just a spur of the moment idea. As he explained, in the postwar period all the marginalized people, including prostitutes, drug addicts and beggars, lived in all of Rome’s magnificent monuments, before restoration works began, and made up a both graphic and tragic environment. «We often considered it with Fellini and at the Herod Atticus Theater I am trying to revive those memories. But I must tell you that this work is full of the optimism of music, giving voice to all those people who live in a dream, hoping for a better future.» The Herod Atticus Theater is situated below the Acropolis. Tickets are available from the theater’s box office and the Hellenic Festival box office (39 Panepistimiou, tel 210.928.2900). For credit card bookings, call the same number. Performances start at 8.30 p.m.