How to manufacture a masterpiece

Article by Anna Picard

Pagliacci was not actually the opera Ruggero Leoncavallo wanted to write. Six years older than Pietro Mascagni and one year older than the man who would become his bête noire, Giacomo Puccini, this Naples-born son of a magistrate had waited a long time for success. Intoxicated by dreams of becoming Italy’s Richard Wagner, Leoncavallo had lived a rackety life since dropping out of university in Bologna: scraping a living first in Egypt, then in Paris, then Milan, playing piano in café-concerts, coaching and accompanying singers, writing his first opera, Chatterton, and a symphonic poem, La nuit de mai. Bound by contract to Puccini’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, and living in a cramped flat on the Via Cappuccini with his common-law wife, Berthe, her mother, Berthe’s adopted daughter, and a cat called Cesare, Leoncavallo’s patience finally snapped in 1891 when the already-delayed premiere of his I Medici, first part of a projected trilogy of operas under the deliberately Wagnerian title of Crepusculum, was postponed in favour of Puccini’s Edgar.

“It was the collapse of a thousand dreams,” wrote the composer of Ricordi’s decision to delay the premiere; “I had thrown away years of work and pointless waiting.” Dazzled by the success of Mascagni’s 1890 one-act opera Cavalleria rusticana, he applied himself to creating a work on the same model, for the same publisher, Edoardo Sonzogno, completing his first draft of the score in only five months. Or so he said. The contradictions, half-lies, legal disputes and grandiose incomplete projects that would characterise the remainder of Leoncavallo’s professional life were just starting as he began to sever his ties with Ricordi. Though he would never admit it, Pagliacci was evidence of Leoncavallo’s remarkable ear for the work of other composers and an astute analysis of the tastes of a newly-affluent and newly-literate, progressive Northern Italy – tastes largely shaped by Sonzogno.

Sonzogno had several reasons to be receptive to the theme of Pagliacci, among them an ongoing rivalry with the patrician Ricordi. In the 1860s his company had made the bulk of its money from publishing I processi celebri illustrati, picking up on an appetite for True Crime. With the toe and heel of Italy plunged in “misery and hunger”, as the elderly Verdi noted in a despairing letter, its calf and thigh were thrilling to prosperity. Sensing the commercial opportunities arising from a newly affluent Northern middle class, Sonzogno printed affordable classics and modern literature in the series La biblioteca del popolo and founded the hugely successful newspaper Il secolo. Next, Sonzogno bought the rights to Carmen, reinvented himself as an impresario, published piano reductions of bel canto operas, launched the first of four competitions for new one-act operas, of which the 1890 winner, Cavalleria rusticana, was the most successful, and signed the young composers Umberto Giordano and Francesco Cilea.

The critical response to the May 21st, 1892 premiere of Pagliacci was one of confusion: Leoncavallo was accused of vulgarity – most particularly in the rough-hewn entrance of the players and the thump of Canio’s drum – yet condemned for crowning Canio’s unfaithful wife, Nedda, with a nobility associated with the blameless Desdemona. The Milanese audience, confident of its own sophistication, hardly cared – and they have been proved better judges than the critics. An early accusation of plagiarism from Catulle Mendès, author of La femme de Tabarin – which also featured a double-murder in the context of a play-within-a-play – was quickly dropped when significant similarities between it and Manuel Tomayo y Baus’s earlier work, Un drama nuevo, were pointed out. Leoncavallo airily issued a statement to the effect that he had modelled the plot of Pagliacci on a case in which his father had ruled in 1865.

According to one of several increasingly flamboyant descriptions of the case that Leoncavallo recounted over the years, the male victim, Gaetano Schiavelli, was in his father’s employ and frequently looked after the young Ruggero – a sort of manny, if you like. The case over which Vincenzo Leoncavallo had actually presided in 1865 was in fact rather different, as records at the State Archive indicate. Instead of a double murder perpetrated by one man in the costume of a clown, it was a single murder perpetrated by two brothers whose clothing is not mentioned. In addition to misremembering the victim’s name, actually Gaetano Scavello, Leoncavallo had transposed the incident from March to August, the month in which he set his opera. More germane than any supposed eyewitness insight was the skill with which Leoncavallo combined an Italianate form of Wagnerianism (the scintillations of trilling flutes and strings in Nedda’s aria) with ideas inspired by Verdi’s Otello (the manipulation of human frailty by a supposed ally) and Massenet’s Manon (the delicate tracery of minuet and gavotte), verismo literature and the theories of Cesare Lombroso, father of the Italian School of Criminal Anthropology.

Lombroso, Professor of Forensic Medicine and Hygiene in the University of Turin from 1873, had transformed public perceptions of human nature when he published Criminal Man in 1876. He extrapolated from the pseudoscience of phrenology a system in which criminality could be measured in the proportions of a face and in which the recently unified Northern and Southern Italians were classified almost as two different species. The birthplace of his theories was in the morgue, where he had noted commonalities among the corpses of criminals in the course of routine autopsies: receding foreheads, fleshy and protuberant lower lips, bumpy crania, monobrows. Any correlation between criminality and poverty, or poverty and physical development, was marginalised (though in later editions of Criminal Man Lombroso did admit the role social factors played in crime).

Lombroso organised his criminals into three types: the Born Criminal, the Insane Criminal, and the Criminaloid, who displays no physical peculiarities but has a susceptibility that can be triggered by distressing circumstance or bad influence. A subset of this last type was the “Criminal by Passion”. As Jonathan R. Hiller notes in an essay exploring connections between criminology and verismo opera in the Cesare Lombroso Handbook, Canio “follows what Lombroso argues is the typical pattern of behaviour for crimes of passion, maintaining his cool until events push him over the edge, at which point he springs to action with uncontrollable rage”.

Certainly, Canio’s murder of his wife and her lover fits the profile of an honour killing, and to Lombroso “offended honour” was a key trigger to homicide: “The passions which stimulate the impulsive criminal are not of the type which one can restrain… Not only do they procure no alibi, not only do they not hide their crimes, but they murder right in front of their friends.” Canio does more: he turns murder into a performance, and a performance into murder. This, then, in the framing device of a commedia dell’arte performance in a Calabrian village on the hottest night of the year, August 15th, is both the “grande spettacolo” promised by Canio and the “slice of life” promised by Tonio in the Prologue. But what, if anything, are we meant to feel?

Lombroso argues for clemency: “We find [in Criminals by Passion] an excessive degree of those qualities we consider peculiar to good and holy persons – love, honour, noble ambition, patriotism. In fact, the motive of the crime is always adequate, frequently noble, sometimes sublime. Love prompts certain natures to kill those who insult their beloved ones or are the cause of their dishonour, and, in some cases, even the object of their affection who proves unfaithful. The deed is almost always unpremeditated and committed publicly, without accomplices and with the simplest means at hand – be they nails, teeth, scissors or a stick.”

Leoncavallo declared: “I want living subjects, with flesh and blood like myself, who shall feel and think like men and women, who shall suffer from the same passions that sway our own hearts and senses.” But to the typical bourgeois Northern Italian opera-lover, the impoverished, uninhibited, highly-sexed, half-starved protagonists of Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci and Giordano’s Mala vita (another 1892 opera, set in the squalid Basso Porto district of Naples) would have been as exotic as any oriental despot, antique duke or mediaeval warrior. Much as he had absorbed the most effective descriptive techniques of Verdi, Wagner and Massenet, Leoncavallo seems to have moulded and refined his characters to fit Lombroso’s theories and the mindset of the public. Canio becomes the perfect example of a Passionate Criminal, while deformed Tonio, far more than Iago (of whose appearance we know nothing), can be read as the Born Criminal. And what could be more thrillingly terrifying to an audience that believed itself to be au fait with criminal characteristics and had feasted on photographic images from the new science of anthropometry than a homicidal clown, his expression hidden by make-up?

Puccini understood his audience’s appetite for variety and novelty instinctively, to the fury of Leoncavallo, who could not keep up and would never repeat the success of Pagliacci. It scarcely mattered. His lurid thriller had found its audience. As with Puccini’s much later one-act opera, Il tabarro, which reduces and refines the Crime of Passion formula still further, the art was not in the story but the story-telling. All that remained was to make Pagliacci an international success.

In September 1892, Sonzogno mounted a season of performances in the Prater, Vienna, to showcase his stable of composers. Bored by the parochial patter of operetta and the chromatic gloom of post-Wagnerian opera, the Viennese thrilled to the concision and violence of the Italian operas. Giordano described the impact of the season as “a thunderclap in a clear sky”. Within two years, Pagliacci had been translated into every European language and, following a shotgun marriage at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome in 1893, would assume its place as the traditional second half of a double-bill with the opera that inspired it.

Pagliacci has enjoyed an afterlife denied to the rest of Leoncavallo’s completed output, though contemporary press reports in Italy and America indicate that his 1897 version of Murger’s Scènes de la vie bohème was not immediately felt to be inferior to Puccini’s, which had premiered in 1896. Having assisted Puccini on the libretto of Manon Lescaut, Leoncavallo was scathing about Puccini’s inability to read French, his ignorance of literature. For once, Leoncavallo’s sense of entitlement was not misplaced: he had lived the life of a Bohemian in Paris, enjoying, for a while, the intense same-sex friendships and multiple cashflow crises depicted by Murger. Imagine Schaunard with a grudge and you have the young Leoncavallo. His version of the opera is truer to the source, a proper group portrait. But Puccini was the faster, better composer.

Though the regular income generated by Pagliacci softened the blow, the diminishing status of Leoncavallo’s reputation chafed. I Medici was staged in 1893, a year after Pagliacci, enjoying only moderate success. Even Chatterton, a work the composer described as “banal rubbish”, found its way to the stage in 1896, but the second and third parts of Crepusculum, Leoncavallo’s cherished hommage to Wagner, Savonarola and Cesare Borgia, were never written. In a New York Times translation of an interview given to the musical editor of The Berlin Courier many years and abandoned projects after Leoncavallo’s first, belated and only true success, we find the prosperous but constitutionally resentful composer at home in a modishly Japanese-decorated study, with bamboo furniture, a portrait of Wagner and a bust of Massenet. As Leoncavallo discusses yet another project lost to time and changing tastes, the interviewer notes evidence of his one lasting hit in language very much of its time: “… amid a crowd of slit-eyed deities and masks there was visible a large poster of Canio in his white dress beating his big drum.”

Having given the clown a voice legitimised by science and nourished on sensationalism, Leoncavallo would never escape his creation. Enrico Caruso’s recording of ‘Vesti la giubba’ would become the first best-seller of the new century (in fact the first record to sell a million copies), while Canio’s jealousy, torment and psychosis would be referenced in Smokey Robinson’s Motown hit ‘Tears of a Clown’ and inspire an entire episode of the television comedy Seinfeld. If the composer were here tonight, he might be happy to take a bow at the end of the show. See him at the bar afterwards, however, and he’d be trying to persuade the management to put on La bohème, I Medici, Zazà, Malbruk or Zingari, the 1912 return to verismo that was written for London. And he’d still be claiming that the idea for Pagliacci was his and his alone.

Anna Picard worked in the field of early music before turning to journalism. Since 2000, she has been Classical Music Critic of the Independent on Sunday