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Classics on Sunday: Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo

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LAST week I wrote about the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. Because it is a short work lasting about an hour and 20 minutes, it is often performed on a double bill with another short opera, Pagliacci (The Clowns) by Ruggero Leoncavallo, the combination being widely known as ‘Cav and Pag’.

It was the success of Cavalleria Rusticana, premiered in 1890, which inspired Leoncavallo (1857-1919) to try his hand. He was six years older than Mascagni, born in Naples and brought up in Montalto Uffugo in Calabria. His father was a judge. He studied music at a Naples conservatory and literature at the University of Bologna. He spent three years in Egypt working as a pianist and piano teacher, then went to Paris where he accompanied singers in cafes. He wrote a symphonic poem called La nuit de mai, based on poetry by the French romantic Alfred de Musset. It was well received on its premiere in 1887, making him enough money to go to Milan and start a career as a composer of opera.

This career had not progressed very far when Cavalleria Rusticana, written in the verismo or realistic style, took Italy by storm in 1890. Leoncavallo immediately started on his own verismo work, composing both music and libretto. He wrote that he based the story of Pagliacci on an incident from his childhood when a family servant was murdered in Montalto Uffugo in 1865 by another villager, both men being in love with the same girl.  Leoncavallo’s father presided over the criminal investigation.

Pagliacci premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 21 May 1892, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The UK premiere was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, a year later.

In 1894 a French author called Catulle Mendès started a legal action claiming that Leoncavallo had plagiarised his 1887 play La Femme de Tabarin, with its play-within-the-play and the clown murdering his wife. Leoncavallo pleaded ignorance of Mendès’s play. Later there were counter-accusations that Mendès’s play resembled yet another work and Mendès dropped his lawsuit.

The most famous aria in Pagliacci is Vesti la giubba (‘Put on the costume’ or ‘On with the motley’). It comes at the end of the first act when the character Canio discovers his wife’s infidelity, but must nevertheless prepare for his performance as Pagliaccio the clown because the show must go on. These are the lyrics, translated from the Italian:

Act! While in delirium,

I no longer know what I say,

or what I do!

And yet it’s necessary . . . make an effort!

Bah! Are you not a man?

You are a clown!

Put on your costume, powder your face.

The people pay, and they want to laugh.

And if Harlequin steals your Columbina,

laugh, clown, and everyone will applaud!

Turn your distress and tears into jokes,

your pain and sobbing into a grimace, Ah!

Laugh, clown,

at your broken love!

Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!

It was recorded by Enrico Caruso in 1902, 1904 and 1907 and laid claim to being the world’s first record to sell a million copies, though this was probably a total of the various versions. I am not sure which recording this is, but it has some great old film with it.

Here is the song performed by Luciano Pavarotti. Again, I am not sure of the year.

In 1907, Pagliacci was the first complete opera to be recorded, and and in 1931 the first to be filmed with sound.

Like Mascagni, Leoncavallo wrote many other works but none matched his early success with Pagliacci. He almost made it in 1897 when his La Bohème was premiered in Venice, but he was beaten to it by Puccini’s opera of the same name and on the same subject, which was premiered in 1896. Leoncavallo also composed songs, most famously Mattinata, which he wrote with Caruso’s voice in mind. On 8 April 1904, Leoncavallo accompanied Caruso as they recorded it.

Leoncavallo died in Montecatini Terme, Tuscany, on 9 August 1919. Among the hundreds who attended his funeral were his fellow composers Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini.

PS: Last week a commenter remarked that he preferred the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana to the Intermezzo, so here it is in a lovely recording by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge and Australian soprano Kiandra Howarth:

This is in the YouTube legend: ‘There has been some debate on the channel as to whether or not one of the talented choristers at King’s could or should have tackled the part sung by Ms Howarth. We are indeed lucky to have a succinct assessment by one of the choristers himself. “As a King’s chorister singing in that recording, I know that none of us were able to sing loud enough”.’ 

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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