Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857 - 1919)

Reading about the lives of many composers of music, a single thread runs through. Most try to make a name for themselves, but did not achieve much recognition during their lives, their work appreciated much more posthumously. Looking at this brief summary of Ruggero Leoncavallo's life, I can't help feeling that the composer's craft has a sense of immortality that transcends the composer's own mortality. The use of the word 'great operatic Walhalla', and I Pagliacci's place in it, reminds us of the fact that writing has the power of resurrection, a process that continues with every repeated performance or reading.

Ruggero Leoncavallo, the son of a magistrate, was born in Naples, Italy. He was a talented child, and when he was nine years old, he was accepted as a student of piano and composition at the Naples Conservatory of Music. At age eighteen Leoncavallo set to work on his first opera Chatterton. He had arranged for its premier production in Bologna, but an unscrupulous impresario deserted the young composer just before the opening. Penniless and discouraged, Leoncavallo had to earn his living by teaching piano and voice, and performing at cafe concerts. Leoncavallo's next operatic project was I Medici, the first part of an ambitious trilogy of works based on events of the Italian Renaissance. Fascinated - and irritated - by the success in 1890 of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, Leoncavallo decided to write and compose a short, realistic opera himself. In the autumn of 1890 he offered the libretto to the Milan publisher Edoardo Sonzogno - who had Mascagni under contract, too - and was told to go ahead with the composition. The famous and powerful music publisher Ricordi was not interested in the work, and perhaps out of desperation, Leoncavallo wrote Pagliacci (1892), emulating the vivid realism of Pietro Mascagni's immensely successful Cavalleria Rusticana (1890). The realistic style of opera, emphasizing contemporary settings, working-class characters, violent passions and actions, has come to be known as verismo.

Leoncavallo wrote his own libretto for Pagliacci. Looking for a realistic, tragic story he could use, he remembered a true story he had heard from his father, a judge. His father had presided at the trial of an actor who had murdered his wife in a fit of jealousy. It suited his needs, and became the basis for the opera.

This is the "nest of memories" referred to in the Prologue.

Pagliacci was a triumph and it made Leoncavallo famous virtually overnight. Unfortunately, like Mascagni, he was never able to duplicate his success. When I Medici was finally produced in 1893, it was poorly received and the composer abandoned plans to complete the trilogy. His La Boh'me (1897) was overshadowed by Puccini's very popular version of the same story, which had been produced the previous year. Only Zaza, the story of a Parisian music-hall singer, achieved any notable success: the Milan premiere in 1900 had Toscanini conducting an all-start cast. Leoncavallo produced several more operas in the years before his death in 1919, but today only Pagliacci is regularly performed, and almost always on the same program with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana.

Thus, practically two years after the first performance of 'Cavalleria Rusticana' in Rome, 'Pagliacci' was premiered at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan. The triumphant reception of his opera turned Leoncavallo into an instant celebrity Numerous Italian opera houses produced 'Pagliacci' shortly after its premiere; abroad it was first shown in Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, London, New York, Buenos Aires, Stockholm, Mexico City, Basel and Moscow.

'Cav' and 'Pag', more often than not paired in performance, were the only lasting achievements of their respective composers. Leoncavallo's other fourteen operas and operettas suffered essentially the same fate as Mascagni's polite interest, but no rousing success.

However, both 'Cav' and 'Pag', so quintessentially of the Italian verismo or naturalistic/realistic style, so exuberant, so dramatic, so poignant, and also so lyrical, ensure Mascagni's and Leoncavallo's place in the great operatic Walhalla - where would opera houses be without them.



Metropolitan Opera Guild