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Ruggiero Leoncavallo: Ruggiero Leoncavallo (b. Naples, 8 March 1858; d. Montacatani, 9 Aug 1919).
The fact that Ruggiero Leoncavallo was the son of a magistrate is of some importance, because his father was the judge at the trial in Montalto of an actor in a touring theatre company who had murdered his wife after a performance. It was on this tragic incident that the composer based the libretto of Pagliacci, the opera for which he is still famous the world over. This was first produced at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan on the 21st May 1892, winning him overnight success, but before that he had studied and worked hard to no avail. Having shown musical ability at an early age he was admitted to the Naples Conservatoire as a student of piano and composition, leaving at the age of eighteen with the diploma of 'maestro' to begin work straight away on an opera on the story of the ill-fated English poet Thomas Chatterton, his inspiration fired by the drama by Alfred de Vigny. He completed the opera at Bologna and arranged for its production, but the unscrupulous impresario vanished just before the premiere, leaving Ruggiero Leoncavallo almost penniless and in despair. He was obliged to earn a livelihood by giving piano and singing lessons, from which he graduated to accompanying soloists at cafe concerts. As a menial accompanist he began to travel widely, not only going to France, Holland, Germany and England but venturing as far as Cairo.
Returning at last to Italy, Ruggiero Leoncavallo embarked on an ambitious operatic trilogy covering the events of the Renaissance in his native country, but after waiting in vain for a performance of the first of these operas, I Medici, he set to work on the short two-act Pagliacci. (He had wanted to enter this for the competition which was won in 1890 by Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, but it was ineligible since the Sonzogno competition was for one-act operas only.) Throughout his life Ruggiero Leoncavallo seems to have set his sights on a plane above the verismo melodrama of Pagliacci, though it soon became clear that this is where his natural talent lay. He had no reason to feel his popular opera was in any way inferior, because it is a masterpiece of its kind. The Prologue, partly instrumental and partly vocal, is indeed a stroke of genius, still capable of striking the opera-goer of today as a tour de force in spite of its familiarity. The melodies flow with natural ease and are always perfectly tailored to character and situation, while the orchestration is both vivid and subtle. The music for the play within the play is skilfully designed to stand apart from that which depicts the characters' real emotions, of which the arias for the broken-hearted clown are particularly expressive. By one of the few benevolent tricks which fate has played on composers, Pagliacci made the ideal companion-piece for Cavalleria Rusticana, so that both operas became assured of immortality as a double bill.
Ruggiero Leoncavallo was never to repeat this first triumph. In 1893 his originally spurned I Medici was finally staged, but it proved such a failure that the composer gave up any thought of completing his grand trilogy. The earlier Chatterton was tried out three years later, but the Roman public gave it the thumbs down. Ruggiero Leoncavallo scored a near-hit in 1897 with La Boheme at the Teatro la Fenice, but though this adaptation of Henri Murger's novel was quite well received it was overshadowed by Puccini's more appealing opera on the same subject, which had been premiered in Turin a few months earlier and was then sending audiences at a rival theatre in Venice into ecstasies. It is possible, indeed, that Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Boheme might still have a place in the popular repertoire today had Puccini not beaten him to the post. After Pagliacci Leoncavallo's most successful opera was Zazd, also cast in the verismo mould, which started life in Milan in 1900 with Arturo Toscanini conducting a star cast. It can still prove an effective piece when a gifted singing actress performs the title-role of a Parisian music-hall singer who finally sees the folly of her affair with a married man and returns to her previous lover. Although the opera enjoyed some international success at the time, it is now rarely revived outside Italy. More operas followed, some tragic and others comic, and also two operettas, but Ruggiero Leoncavallo was forced to realise in the end that he would be remembered by posterity simply as the composer of Pagliacci, and that even this powerful work would only survive in perpetual tandem with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana.
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