Personalities | Ruggero Leoncavallo | Turn of the Century | Opera
Leoncavallo was born and studied in Naples. His first opera, Chatterton (1876), written to a libretto by himself, did not initially procure any performances and, in spite of encouragement from his family, Leoncavallo did not appear to be going far in the world of opera. However, with the support of the baritone Victor Maurel he received a commission from the leading Italian publisher of the time, Giulio Ricordi. The project Leoncavallo embarked on was an ambitious trilogy, intended as the Italian equivalent to Wagner’s Ring cycle. His work became increasingly erratic and it was never completed.
Leoncavallo earned his keep mostly through writing (it is possible that he was a co-author of the libretto to Puccini’s Manon Lescaut), and it was not until the sensational premiere of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana in 1890 that Leoncavallo found a true sense of direction. With an instinct for a marketable idea, Leoncavallo was swift to present the publisher Sonzogno with an outline for a powerful story of jealously obsessive love, similar in broad outline and ethos to Mascagni’s work. The resulting one-act opera Pagliacci, written again to his own libretto, was a smash hit. Its fast pace and robust music ensure that the audience is pulled right into the drama. Like Mascagni, Leoncavallo was unable to repeat the triumph of Pagliacci. His work focused increasingly on the lighter side but he suffered from his unwillingness or inability to develop with the times.
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