Pag without the Cav

Cav & Pag go together as well as G & T. Or do they? At last year’s summer opera season at Torre del Lago Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana was paired with Puccini’s Il Tabarro in what remains a long-standing tradition in the Lucca area. Actually, the standard pairing of the two shortish operas does Leoncavallo a serious injustice – he is by far the greater of the two verismo composers.

Born in Naples in 1857, the young Ruggero was unsure whether to pursue a literary or a musical career. In fact, he pursued both, writing the majority of the libretti for his operas and is considered today the best Italian librettist next to Boito.

After stints playing at Parisian cabarets and an attempt at Bologna to stage his first opera Chatterton (based on the tragically short life of the English poet) Leoncavallo seized his chance after he heard Mascagni’s setting of Verga’s Rustic Chivalry in 1890 and wrote his Pagliacci produced in 1892 to great acclaim in Milan with no-one less than Toscanini conducting.

The sizzling two-acter, which incorporates a play within a play Hamlet-style and juggles between fantasy and reality in chilling fashion, was both Leoncavallo’s greatest triumph and his greatest disaster – disaster because he lived the rest of his life in the shadow of Pagliacci’s immense success, unable ever to repeat it again. His La Bohème, for example, after a good start was totally submerged by Puccini’s own version (which many feel is less faithful to the original Murgier story) and few people know the names of his other operas such as Mimi Pinson or Maia.

Leoncavallo saw himself as Italy’s answer to Wagner and even started writing an Italian “renaissance” trilogy in reply to Wagner’s ring cycle called Il Crepuscolo (The twilight). Only the first part,  I Medici was completed. This was revived at Torre del Lago theatre in 2007 on the occasion of the composer’s 150th birth anniversary and all I can remember about it is that I survived the performance – not because it was in any way bad but because the music was insipidly complex.

Towards the end of his life Ruggero Leoncavallo turned into a sort of clown himself. Short, corpulent, bristly and with impossible moustaches he was reduced to writing second-rate operettas to keep the wolf from the door. Malbrouck, La reginetta delle rose, Are You There?, La candidata, Prestami tua moglie: who remembers such titles as these today?

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Are you there? was an especial flop at its London première and was greeted by loud boos and a riotous  audience. The main star tried to speak and apologise to the ticket-holders for the work but his speech was shouted down by the rabble.

Poor Leoncavallo! He saw himself as Italy’s Wagner but failed even to become its Lehar! He was a bit like Orson Welles who said of himself “I started at the top and gradually worked my way down to the bottom.”

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I am glad to say there were absolutely no boos from the stalls and the audience was far from being riotous at the staging of the work Ruggero Leoncavallo will always be fondly remembered by:  Pagliacci, performed at Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico yesterday afternoon by the ORFEO In SCENA opera group – a great little team of singers (web site at http://www.orfeoinscena.it/) who gave us a truly memorable performance.

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It would be difficult to mention who was the best soloist – they were all good but Simone Mugnaini sang a truly memorable Canio which I felt was influenced not a little by what Placido Domingo had to say about the character – that Canio is essentially a protective father-figure towards Nedda (alias Colombina, equally superbly sung and acted by Chiara Panacci) and that the gory double murder which concludes the proceedings (La commedia è finita) is an episode quite out of character (like perhaps the airline pilot’s presumed action in the current flight 370 mystery?)

(Simone Mugnaini singing “On with the Motley” at Bagni di Lucca’s theatre yesterday).

(Last scene and finale of Pagliacci)

It is quite remarkable, but also quite typical in the greatest Italian dramatic lyrical tradition, that a small company can put on a performance of the highest standard which in the UK could only be achieved in major urban centres. Opera truly runs in the arteries of any Italian worth his or her name and it is an innate attribute of a people who thrive on melodrama.

By the way, I forgot: perhaps the greatest performance yesterday afternoon was by the pianist. I dread operatic performances where an orchestra is substituted by the ivories but Maestro Marco Rimicci proved an utter virtuoso, colouring his playing with subtle nuances and making us forget that we were missing full symphony strings.

Moreover, I felt in some respects that this production was closer to the spirit of the original than those launched in big opera houses. After all, in our little theatre, we could have been the audience at that fateful night in the Calabrian village when the bloody incident that inspired the composer took place.

I’ve already booked the next (and regrettably) last opera for this short lyrical season at Bagni di Lucca. It’s La Bohème (Puccini’s version, not Leoncavallo’s, of course) and it’s on March 30th and apparently most of the seats have already gone. So hurry up and get your place now….

PS “Pagliacci” was not only the first opera to be recorded complete (in 1907), it was the first to be filmed complete (in 1931).

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