In his 1889 essay “The Decay of Lying” author Oscar Wilde wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” This was certainly the case with opera’s most well known one-hit wonder, Ruggero Leoncavallo, as he was forced to defend the source of his idea to create the opera that finally secured his place in operatic notoriety: Pagliacci.
Leoncavallo was born to the Neopolitan elite. His father was a judge and his mother was from a prominent aristocratic family in Naples. He began his musical studies at age 11. Records differ if he ever received a degree but he left the conservatory at the age of 18 regarded as a very competent pianist and possessing thorough musical training.
Leoncavallo traveled to Bologna after high school in 1877. Although it is not clear whether he was actually enrolled in University, he began working with Giosuè Carducci – Italy’s most famous poet, writer, and a dominant figure in the city life of Bologna. It was then Leoncavallo began to shape his musical ideals and started to see himself as a composer.
It was Carducci who encouraged Leoncavallo to embark on his most ambitious composition project: a historical operatic trilogy of the Italian Renaissance modeled after Wagner’s Ring. Unfortunately, he only completed one of the three operas, I medici, which was not well received by audience and critics when it premiered 15 years after its inception.
|The Teatro Dal Verme in Milan where Pagliacci |
had it's premiere in 1892.
Suffering from years of rejection and false promises, Leoncavallo was forced to support himself and his family working as a rehearsal pianist, vocal coach, and voice teacher. He had reached a point of desperation when he conceived of creating Pagliacci. Well aware of the run-away success of Mascagni’s one-act Cavalleria Rusticana which had debuted to great acclaim in 1890, he abandoned his trilogy and dove into the creation of a one-act opera meant to rival Mascagni’s success.
He composed both the libretto and music for Pagliacci in only five months. He submitted the work to Edoardo Sonzogno, a music publisher who had established a one-act opera contest in 1883 and was responsible for launching Mascagni and Cavalleria Rusticana to fame. Sonzogno accepted the opera immediately and presented it at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on May 21, 1892. The opera received mixed reviews critically but was an immediate success with the audience. Productions quickly spread across Italy and Central Europe finally earning Leoncavallo the fame and wealth he greatly desired.
Despite the success of the opera, controversy remains over the source of the composer’s libretto. When the French version of the opera was published in 1894 in preparation for a production in Brussels, Catulle Mendès, a well known French playwright, accused Leoncavallo of plagiarism. His claim states Leoncavallo had plagiarized the plot of his opera from his play La femme de Tabarin, an extremely popular play which premiered in Paris in 1887. Mendès’s play centers around a clown named Tabarin who, during the course of a speech to the audience in the final scene, discovers his wife, Francisquine, in the arms of a soldier. Tabarin is provided with a sword from the audience and kills his wife in front of the crowd who initially take it as part of the show until it is revealed she is truly dead; very much in line with the course of action in Pagliacci.
Leoncavallo rejected Mendès’s claims stating he had never seen his play. He claimed the story was based on an episode he had overheard sitting in his father’s court when he was a young boy. In addition, Leoncavallo made the point that Mendès’s play itself was based on another play entitled Un drama Nuevo by the playwright Manuel Tamayo y Baus, another story depicting a love triangle amongst a group of actors as they prepare a play for performance, which had premiered twenty years earlier. Mendès dropped his suit but questions lingered around the true genesis of Leoncavallo’s idea for Pagliacci.
Still plagued by Mendès’s assertions of plagiarism five years later, Leoncavallo offered a more detailed explanation regarding the source of the storyline for Pagliacci. He now claimed that he had in fact witnessed the murder in his own household. He explains the character of Silvio was modeled after a man named Gaetano Scavello, a servant who worked in his family’s household, who was murdered by the D’Alessandro brothers, Luigi and Giovanni, with a knife. Court transcripts from the proceedings suggest that Giovanni and Gaetano were romancing the same woman, resulting in a murder spurred by jealousy and revenge just as in Pagliacci.
Tenor Enrico Caruso (left) as Canio at the turn of the century and
Michael Robert Hendrick (right) as Canio at Sarasota Opera.
Despite Leoncavallo’s claims of ignorance to either of the two works, scholars find it difficult to believe that a man so well educated, traveled, and a proud aficionado of the theater would have never seen or at least been aware of the two plays in question. You also can’t help but notice the use of the play-within-the-play structure in which the characters portray actors on stage, and, in all three instances, mimic their “real life” circumstances.
|Marco Nistico as Tonio, Veronica Mitina as Nedda, and Michael Robert Hendrick as Canio |
in Sarasota Opera's production of Pagliacci. Photo by Rod Millington.
Regardless of controversy, Pagliacci was an instance where Ruggero Leoncavallo illustrated his mastery of words and music. The musicologist Matteo Sansone stated the following in his essay “The Verismo of Ruggero Leoncavallo: A Source Study of Pagliacci”:
His single-handed, earnest efforts to achieve success in the fiercely competitive world of late nineteenth-century Italian opera deserve full recognition… Leoncavallo could shape libretto and then versify the text according to his own musical requirements – an ability that none of his colleagues possessed. He was able to research on a chosen subject… and insert authentic material, such as songs, poems and historical details, into his librettos… he was… an ingenious craftsman… a deft manipulator of literary sources and a perceptive observer of current trends.
Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci opens at Sarasota Opera Friday, October 31st, and will run for six performances through November 15th. Tickets are available at www.sarasotaopera.org or by calling the box office at (941) 328-1300.
- Samuel Lowry, Director of Audience Development