Pagliacci was first performed to critical acclaim in 1892 in Milan, and has continued to thrill and impress audiences for more than a century. According to Opera America, it continues to be one of the most popular and widely performed opera of all time. Indeed, a good indication of its success can be garnered from the fact that Pagliacci’s most popular aria Vesti la Giubba became the first recording to sell a million copies in the States.
Described as “the apogee of verisimo”, Pagliacci was written by its composer in an attempt to bring a realism of emotion to opera. Never before had opera-going audiences witnessed such intensity, even if today the characters fulfil many clichés.
Its creation was somewhat controversial, as it’s composer, Leoncavallo had a plagiarism lawsuit brought against him, after it was noticed it bore a resemblance to an 1887 play of Catulle Mendès entitled, La Femme de Tabarin. Leoncavallo was living in Paris at the time of its premiere, and it is likely that he saw the play. However, Leoncavallo maintained that the opera was actually based on a real event he witnessed as a child in Calabria, when his nurse took him to see a carnival in the town and a murder occurred. He also claimed that his father, who was a judge, had led the criminal investigation, and that he had documents supporting these claims. None of this evidence has ever appeared. Today most critics agree that the libretto was inspired by the French play and by the earlier success of Mascagni’s short opera Cavalleria Rusticana.
In truth, both operas are heavily influenced by ‘verismo’, and by the comedia dell’Arte style, and feature several storytelling devices that crop up time and time again throughout the history of music and theatre. This particular story features treachery and betrayal, mistaken identity and murder, thus highlighting what has made this opera so popular over time. In addition it features the concept of “the play within a play”, a dramatic trope that emphasised the importance of role-playing in society.
Leoncavallo was unable to repeat the success he had achieved with Pagliacci. He continued to write for many years, but was a victim of his own accomplishments, and quickly became bogged down in trying to better his primary effort. By the time he died in 1919, he had composed no other significant musical offerings.
There have been many notable performances of Pagliacci, including those where Pavarotti has played the role of Canio.