Ruggero Leoncavallo (Italian pronunciation: [rudˈdʒɛːro leoŋkaˈvallo]; 23 April 1857 – 9 August 1919) was an Italian opera composer. His one-act work Pagliacci remains one of the most popular works in the repertory, appearing as number 14 on Opera America's 2007 list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America.
The son of a police magistrate, 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.
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.
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