Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1857 -1919)
Ruggiero Leoncavallo was born in 1857 in Naples, where heentered the conservatory in 1866, proceeding ten years later to the Universityof Bologna to take a degree in literature. His first opera, Chatterton, provedinitially unacceptable, while his second attempt at opera, with the first of anintended
Renaissance trilogy, I Medici, did not please thepublisher Ricordi, who had started to take an interest in Leoncavallo's work,and the trilogy remained unfinished. Ricordi had commissioned from him a librettofor Puccini's planned
Manon Lescaut, but this was rejected by the composer. Itwas in partial reaction to this early failure and to the very considerablesuccess of Mascagni's short and realist opera Cavalleria Rusticana, thatLeoncavallo, in 1892, wrote the text and music of Pagliacci, with a story basedon a murder case with which his father, a magistrate in Naples, had beenconcerned. The work was at once accepted for performance by the impresarioSonzogno and staged at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan with great success underthe direction of Arturo Toscanini.
The success of Pagliacci persuaded Sonzogno to stage IMedici, the first part of the proposed trilogy, but the work failed to please,either musically or dramatically. In 1897 Leoncavallo's version of La Bohemewas mounted at La
Fenice in Venice and was initially well enough received,although Puccini's version of the same story, staged the year before, waseventually to oust its later rival. A revised version of Chatterton failed, butin 1900 the new opera
Zaza, staged at the Teatro Lirico in Milan underToscanini, fared well enough.
Leoncavallo's subsequent stage works enjoyed onlyfleeting success, if any, and he wrote nothing to equal Pagliacci, although thesong Mattinata, written for recording and first recorded by Caruso in 1904,remains a particularly popular item of tenor repertoire. He died in 1919.
Pagliacci remains Leoncavallo's most considerableachievement. It came at a time when verismo, realism, often of a generallysordid kind, had seized the imagination of the public, and is a successfulexample of a genre that produced a number of contemporary operatic disasters,whatever their passing commercial appeal. Music and text are dramatic and evenhistrionic in a tragedy of jealousy expressed in the starkest terms. After itsfirst successful staging in Milan in May 1892 it was mounted at Covent Gardenin May the following years and in June 1893 at the Grand Opera House in NewYork.