In 1865, a murder took place in the Italian village of Montalto Uffugo in Calabria. Vincenzo Leoncavallo, a local magistrate, hired a young man by the name of Gaetano Scavello to help look after his rowdy sons, Leone and Ruggiero. Gaetano was in love with a village girl. One day he saw her enter a house with a servant of a man named Luigi Alessandro, and immediately became jealous He confronted the servant and, when the man refused to answer, Gaetano struck him. The servant ran to report to his master. Luigi and his brother Giovanni came after Gaetano with weapons, but he escaped. In the early hours of the next morning, the brothers ambushed Gaetano and stabbed him. He died two days later of his injuries. The brothers were later sentenced to twenty years’ hard labor and a life sentence respectively, though both sentences were later reduced. Fortunately for them, Vincenzo Leoncavallo did not believe in the death penalty.
Ruggiero Leoncavallo claimed that this incident inspired the plot of I pagliacci, though it bears very little resemblance to the opera’s action, other than involving a murder over the affections of a woman, and a Calabrian setting. As it happens, there are two very similar versions of the tale that predate the opera, and Leoncavallo very likely had access to them. In Manuel Tamayo y Baus’ 1867 play Un drama nuevo, set 17th century England, William Shakespeare himself appears as an actor in a troupe where a jealous husband murders his wife and her lover, spurred on by a malicious fellow actor. The plot of Catulle Mendés’ 1874 play is also very close to Pagliacci‘s, La femme du Tabarin very similar plot. Both plays include lines that resemble several of Canio’s famous utterances: “No, pagliccio non son!” (“No, I am not a clown!”) and “Il tuo nome, o la tua vita!” (“His name or your life!”). La femme du Tabarin even includes a monologue for the Canio character which echoes the sentiments in the text of the famous aria “Vesti la giubba.”
After Pagliacci premiered in 1892, Mendés sued Leoncavallo for plagiarism over the plot similarities between his play and the opera. However, he dropped the lawsuit amid counteraccusations that his own work was based on Tamayo y Baus’ earlier play. On his part, Leoncavallo claimed that he knew nothing about Mendés’ play and stuck to his story about inspiration from the murder of his childhood caregiver. For a thorough comparison of the plays and the opera, check out this article on Yusypovich.
It’s interesting to note that later, Leoncavallo got into a professional scuffle with Giacomo Puccini over who had precedence for the authorship of La bohème. Both composers had written their own, very different versions, and both claimed to have been writing theirs first. Puccini neatly sidestepped any escalation by publicly suggesting that the court of public opinion judge the matter, and we all know who won that argument: FGO stages Puccini’s La bohème beginning in April.
ANNOUNCING OUR NEW PODCAST: TALES OF FLORIDA GRAND OPERA WITH JUSTIN MOSS!
FGO has partnered with the marvelous folks at the Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab to create a new podcast featuring Justin Moss, one of South Florida’s living cultural treasures. For nearly 30 years, he served as Florida Grand Opera’s Managing Director for Public Relations and Community Affairs, quickly becoming a fixture in the company and an audience favorite with his popular pre-curtain opera lectures. He is the foremost expert on Florida Grand Opera, Florida’s oldest producing arts organization and the seventh- oldest opera company in the United States. Join Justin and friends for anecdotes both colorful and touching, fascinating glimpses into opera, FGO, and South Florida history, in-depth discussions with artists, directors, conductors, and other special guests, and tantalizing talk about all things opera.
In Episode 1: The Once and Future Clowns, Justin and stage director Jeffrey Marc Buchman trace Florida Grand Opera’s history and future with Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s thrilling I pagliacci, from the inaugural 1942 performance of the newly-formed Opera Guild of Miami to FGO’s upcoming production of this gripping play-within-an-opera about life in a 19th-century troupe of travelling actors.
Stay tuned for air dates and locations. In the meantime, get your tickets for I pagliacci, opening January 27 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets at fgo.org.