- Profession: Composer (opera).
- Residences: Napels, Milan.
- Relation to Mahler:
- Correspondence with Mahler:
- Born: 08-03-1857 Napels, Italy.
- Died: 09-08-1919 Montecatini, Italy.
- Buried: Monumentale Delle Porte Sante cemetery, Florence, Italy.
Ruggero (or Ruggiero), Giacomo Maria Giuseppe Emmanuele Raffaele Domenico Vincenzo Francesco Donato Leoncavallo (was an Italian opera composer. His two-act work Pagliacci remains one of the most popular works in the repertory, appearing as number 19 on the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide in the 2012/13 season.
The son of a judge, Leoncavallo was born in Naples on 23 April 1857. As child he moved with his father in the town of Montalto Uffugo in Calabria where Leoncavallo lived during his adolescence. He later returned to Naples and was educated at the city’s San Pietro a Majella Conservatory. After some years spent teaching and in ineffective attempts to obtain the production of more than one opera, he saw the enormous success of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana in 1890, and he wasted no time in producing his own verismo hit, Pagliacci. (According to Leoncavallo, the plot of this work had a real-life origin: he claimed it derived from a murder trial, in Montalto Uffugo, over which his father had presided.)
Pagliacci was performed in Milan in 1892 with immediate success; today it is the only work by Leoncavallo in the standard operatic repertory. Its most famous aria “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on the costume” or, in the better-known older translation, “On with the motley”) was recorded by Enrico Caruso and laid claim to being the world’s first record to sell a million copies (although this is probably a total of Caruso’s various versions of it made in 1902, 1904 and 1907).
The next year his I Medici was also produced in Milan, but neither it nor Chatterton (belatedly produced in 1896)—both early works—obtained much lasting favour. Much of Chatterton, however, was recorded by the Gramophone Company (later HMV) as early as 1908, and remastered on CD almost 100 years later by Marston Records. Leoncavallo himself conducts the performance or at very least supervises the production.
It was not until Leoncavallo’s La bohème was performed in 1897 in Venice that his talent obtained public confirmation. However, it was outshone by Puccini’s opera of the same name and on the same subject, which was premiered in 1896. Two tenor arias from Leoncavallo’s version are still occasionally performed, especially in Italy.
Subsequent operas by Leoncavallo were in the 1900s: Zazà (the opera of Geraldine Farrar’s famous 1922 farewell performance at the Metropolitan Opera), and 1904’s Der Roland von Berlin. In 1906 the composer brought singers and orchestral musicians from La Scala to perform concerts of his music in New York, as well as an extensive tour of the United States. The tour was, all in all, a qualified success. He had a brief success with Zingari which premiered in Italian in London in 1912, with a long run at the Hippodrome Theatre. Zingari also reached the United States but soon disappeared from the repertoire.
After a series of operettas, Leoncavallo appeared to have tried for one last serious effort with Edipo re (it). It had always been assumed that Leoncavallo had finished the work but had died before he could finish the orchestration, which was completed by Giovanni Pennacchio (it). However with the publication of Konrad Dryden’s biography of Leoncavallo it was revealed that Leoncavallo may not have written the work at all (although it certainly contains themes by Leoncavallo). A review of Dryden’s study notes: “That fine Edipo re … was not even composed by Leoncavallo. His widow paid another composer to concoct a new opera using the music of Der Roland von Berlin. Dryden didn’t find one reference to the opera in Leoncavallo’s correspondence nor is there a single note by him to be found in the handwritten score.”
What is certain is that in Edipo re, a short one act work, the composer (whoever it actually was) uses exactly the same melody for the final scene “Miei poveri fior, per voi non più sole…” (with the blinded Edipo) as in the act 4 soprano aria from Der Roland von Berlin. It has been assumed (see The New Grove Dictionary of Opera) that Leoncavallo left the opera more or less complete (except for the orchestration). Pennacchio may either have concocted the opera or may have had to do more to Leoncavallo’s more or less complete work to “fill in the gaps” using Leoncavallo’s earlier music. Another clue to demonstrate that Leoncavallo had no or little part in Edipo re is that unusually, in fact exceptionally, Leoncavallo did not write the libretto. The libretto for Edipo re was written by Giovacchino Forzano, who also wrote Il piccolo Marat for Pietro Mascagni and two of the one-act operas for Puccini’s Il trittico. Further, the orchestration of Edipor re, consisting all too often of massed strings and a depressingly constant use of the cymbal, does not seem the work of Leoncavallo whose own orchestration, whilst sometimes uninspired, is at very least competent.
From the 1970s Edipo re has had a number of revivals, both as concert performances (including Rome 1972, Concertgebouw (Amsterdam) 1977 and Konzerthaus, Vienna 1998) as well as fully staged productions at the Teatro Regio, Turin, in 2002 and the Thessaloniki Opera 2008. It remains to be seen who will be given the credit for this opera in future revivals.
Little or nothing from Leoncavallo’s other operas is heard today, but the baritone arias from Zazà were great concert and recording favourites among baritones and Zazà as a whole is sometimes revived, as is his La bohème. The tenor arias from La bohème remain recording favorites.
Leoncavallo also composed songs, most famously Mattinata, which he wrote for the Gramophone Company (which became HMV) with Caruso’s unique voice in mind. On 8 April 1904, Leoncavallo accompanied Caruso at the piano as they recorded the song. On 8 December 1905 he recorded five of his own pieces for the reproducing piano Welte-Mignon. Leoncavallo was the librettist for most of his own operas. Many considered him the greatest Italian librettist of his time after Boito. Among Leoncavallo’s libretti for other composers is his contribution to the libretto for Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Ruggero Leoncavallo died in Montecatini Terme, Tuscany, on 9 August 1919.
- I Pagliacci (1892).
- La Boheme (1897).