How Did Leoncavallo Get the Idea for the Opera Pagliacci About a Clown?

Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857 – 1919) is the composer and librettist of the opera about a group of clowns – Pagliacci. The opera premiered in Milan in 1892.

Leoncavallo’s first name is often misspelled as Ruggiero.

How did Leoncavallo develop the plot idea for the opera Pagliacci? This is a question that has evoked much discussion and controversy. Click to find out more about this controversy.

Click to view an opera video of the opening scene in Pagliacci by Leoncavallo performed at the Lviv Opera House on April 17, 2010 and conducted by Myron Yusypovych.


Leoncavallo Claimed that Pagliacci was Based on a Real-Life Tragedy

Clowns in Pagliacci by Leoncavallo
Clowns in Pagliacci by Leoncavallo

Ruggero Leoncavallo’s father, Vincenzo Leoncavallo, was a magistrate (a lawyer and judge). In 1865, the elder Leoncavallo tried 2 men, Luigi and Giovanni D’Alessandro. The court proceedings took place at Montalto in Calabria. The D’Alessandro brothers were convicted of murdering Gaetano Scavello.

For the young Leoncavallo this case was extremely memorable. The 22 year old murder victim, Gaetano Scavello, was a family friend. Scavello frequently stepped in as a nanny for the young Ruggero Leoncavallo.

Gaetano Scavello, Leoncavallo’s baby-sitter, was murdered by the D’Alessandro brothers. The murder weapon was a knife, which was used to stab the victim in the arm and stomach.

The motive for murder was jealousy. Transcripts of the actual proceedings reprinted by Luisa Longobucco (2003) seem to suggest that both Luigi D’Alessandro and Gaetano Scavello were romancing the same woman.

Did Leoncavallo Base the Opera Pagliacci on a Personal Experience?

In the opera Pagliacci, there is a love-triangle: Canio – Nedda – Silvio. The love-triangle mirrors the young Leoncavallo’s experience: Luigi – young woman – Gaetano. In the opera, Canio and Nedda are husband and wife and Nedda and Silvio are carrying on a romance behind the husband’s back. Canio (the husband portraying a clown) kills Silvio (the lover) in a fit of jealousy. As in the real-life episode, a knife is the murder weapon.


Critics Claimed that Leoncavallo Stole the Clown Plot from Estebanez

Drama Nuevo by Estebanez
Drama Nuevo by Estebanez

Joaquin Estebanez was the pen name of Spanish playwright Manuel Tamayo y Baus (1829 – 1898). In 1867, the play Un Drama Nuevo was produced in Madrid. It was an extremely popular drama not only in production, but also as a published work.

Two young actors, Alice and Edmund, are in love. Due to life circumstances, the young woman marries an older benefactor, Yorick. As the drama begins, the actors are to rehearse a new play («drama nuevo»). The young woman's husband is to play the role of a man, whose wife has been unfaithful to him. In rehearsal, however, he has difficulty portraying his character.

Another actor, Walton, who had initially wanted the jealous husband's role, discovers the young people's secret and decides to tell all to the husband. As the husband comes to believe that his real-life wife is unfaithful to him, his acting of the cuckolded husband improves. In the drama's final act, all the characters portray roles as actors on stage, where their stage characters mimic their real life circumstances.

In the final scene, the husband (Yorick, playing the role of the Count) kills the young man (Edmund, playing the role of Manfredo) on stage.

Did Leoncavallo Steal the Clown Plot for Pagliacci from Estebanez?

Both the opera Pagliacci and the play Un Drama Nuevo have a final scene of a play within a play. The actors portray characters that mirror their real-life circumstances. In both works, the line between acting and real-life is blurred as the husband murders the suspected lover while his wife watches. In both, the deliberate actions of someone consumed by jealousy drive the tragic ending.


Mendes Claimed that Leoncavallo Stole the Clown Plot from Him

The Clown Tabarin
The Clown Tabarin

Catulle Mendes (1841 – 1909) was a French poet and playwright. In 1887, Mendes’ French language play, La Femme de Tabarin, premiered in Paris.

Plans were underway to produce the opera Pagliacci in the French language in Brussels. Before production began, Mendes filed a lawsuit in a Brussel’s court against Leoncavallo and his publisher. In the lawsuit, Mendes claimed that Leoncavallo had plagiarized the libretto of the opera.

According to Gerda Baumbach in her book Theaterkunst and Heilkunst (2001), the name «Tabarin» was extremely popular in Paris during the 19th century. Baumbach claims that Tabarin lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He might have been a Venetian who settled in Paris where he became quite famous. Dressed in a clown costume, Tabarin entertained the Parisian crowds on an outdoor stage. In 1858, two separate editions of Oeuvres complètes de Tabarin (The Complete Works of Tabarin) were published and included writings, jokes, anecdotes, dialogues and antics attributed to the real Tabarin.

In the opening scene of the play La Femme de Tabarin, Tabarin, an actor, enters drunk. His wife, Francisquine, shows disdain as her husband professes his love for her. In Scene 2, a group of French literary and Greek mythology characters discuss Tabarin and the upcoming street play.

In the final scene, Tabarin addresses the gathered crowd and reveals how much he loves his wife. During his speech, Tabarin raises the stage curtain and exposes his wife in the arms of a soldier. Distraught, Tabarin asks for and is provided with a sword by a member of the audience. Tabarin kills his wife, Francisquine. The wife stagers onto the stage and smears her husband's lips with her blood. The audience believes the entire episode is a play until a member of the audience presents Fancisquine with a bouquet of flowers. Everyone, finally, realises that she is indeed dead.

Did Leoncavallo Steal the Clown Plot for Pagliacci from Mendes?

In the opera Pagliacci, an actor-clown kills his wife while performing before a crowd of people. The motive is the wife's infidelity. In both Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Mendes' La femme de Tabarin, the audience is initially unaware that a blending of acting and real-life drama is unfolding before them.


Critics Claimed that Mendes Stole the Clown Plot from Ferrier’s Tabarin

Tabarin by Ferrier
Tabarin by Ferrier

Paul Ferrier (1843 – 1928) was a French playwright. Ferrier’s drama Tabarin was produced in Paris in 1874 and published the following year (1987). The play Tabarin revolves around the lives of a group of street actors.

Tabarin and his wife, Francisquine, are having marital problems. She blames his drinking. He claims she has lovers. Mondor, a fellow actor, tells Tabarin that, after 20 years of work, he has developed a love potion. Tabarin scoffs at the idea of love potions.

Alone on stage, Tabarin bemoans his fate because Francisquine doesn't love him any more.

Je fais rire – c’est là mon rôle sur la terre! I laugh – in this life, that is my role!
Je fais rire les gens: or, rire est salutaire, I make people laugh: for, laughter is healthy,
Et le peuple, prenant plaisir à ma chanson, And, the people take pleasure in my songs,
Je me dis bien faiteur du peuple… à ma façon! I benefit people… in my own way!

Sceptically, Tabarin drinks the love potion left behind on the table.

The play begins. The actors take on their characters’ roles and a meshing of real-life and stage-lives occurs. Gauthier (Capitaine Rodomont) pleads with Francisquine (Isabella) to flee with him. Tabarin (as himself) realises that the two are not acting and becomes distraught. He tells the audience that the play is over, but they only laugh harder. Mondor comments that the audience is barbaric. Tabarin replies:

Eh! Non! c’est l’heure Du spectacle! - Oh no! It is time for the play!
et la lâche est moi seul! and the fool (clown) is me!
moi qui pleure! me, who cries!

Tabarin tries to laugh, but ends up sobbing.

In the end, Francisquine, the dutiful wife, decides to return. Tabarin proclaims that, because of the love potion, all ends well. Nicaise brings in bottles of the elixir. The actors sell the love potion to the audience.

Are there Similarities Between Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Ferrier’s Clown Tabarin?

The most famous song in the opera Pagliacci is “Vesti la giubba”. In the aria, Canio discusses the role of an actor-clown, whose job is to make the audience laugh, even if inside he is crying. There are obvious parallels between this and Tabarin’s soliloquy. Additionally, there is a play within a play, where we see a blending of acting and real-life scenarios and an audience that is unaware of the undercurrents in the actors’ real lives.


Did Leoncavallo Know About Pessard’s Opera About A Clown?

French Opera Composer Émile Pessard
French Opera Composer Émile Pessard

Émile Louis Fortuné Pessard (1843 – 1917) was a French composer, critic and professor. Between 1885 and 1903, Pessard composed an opera every 2 years. All of these operas premiered in Paris.

Paul Ferrier (1843 – 1928) collaborated on a number of operas and operettas with various composers of his time. Émile Pessard composed the music to Ferrier’s Tabarin.

As with all of Émile Pessard’s operas, Tabarin is no longer part of the repertoire of opera houses today. From the information currently available, it appears to have never been performed after its premiere at the Théâtre de l’Opéra (Opera Theatre) in Paris on January 12, 1885.

In a review of the opera Tabarin, published in The New York Times on February 2, 1885, the critic states: “The libretto of M. Ferrier is all fun; the music of M.(sic) Pessard all woe, tragedy, and tears. Hence ensues an unvarying, unimpressive discrepancy that not only bores but bewilders the audience…The author and composer started out at variance; the first saw only a comedy, the latter understood a tragedy.”

Whether or not Leoncavallo knew about the opera composed by Émile Pessard remains a mystery.


Did Leoncavallo Lie About Where He Got His Idea for the Clown Opera Pagliacci?

Opera Pagliacci by Leoncavallo
Opera Pagliacci by Leoncavallo

The short answer is – probably, yes.

In a letter to his publisher mentioned numerous times in many publications, Leoncavallo claimed that the idea for the opera Pagliacci was strictly his own and based on a personal real-life experience. Undoubtedly, the incident from his childhood had an impact on the young Leoncavallo.

But, to claim that a well-educated, well-read and well-travelled writer and composer was unaware of the ideas, plots and theatrical devices of the dramas and opera mentioned above, is highly improbable. It is more likely that coupled with the popular dramatic trends of his time about clowns, infidelity and murder, his childhood experiences and an obvious flair with words and music, Leoncavallo produced the Pagliacci masterpiece we enjoy today.

Did Anyone Steal Anything from Anyone?

In as much as it is possible to steal ideas, there is probably some truth to this 'crime'. But, ideas need to be realised and here Ruggero Leoncavallo proved to be a true master.

Matteo Sansone, perhaps, put it best when he stated:

His single-handed, earnest efforts to achieve success in the fiercely competitive world of late nineteenth-century Italian opera deserve full recognition… Leoncavallo could shape a libretto and then versify the text according to his own musical requirements – an ability that none of his colleagues possessed. He was able to research on a chosen subject… and insert authentic material, such as songs, poems and historical details, into his librettos… he was… an ingenious craftsman… a deft manipulator of literary sources and a perceptive observer of current trends.

from Music and Letters (1989), 70(3): 342-362

Very few people today have heard (never mind read) Estebanez’ Un Drama Nuevo or Mendes’ La Femme de Tabarin. The opera Tabarin by Pessard, based on Ferrier’s play by the same name, has also gone the route of oblivion.

On the other hand, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci, about a murderous clown, became famous and remains a favourite among opera lovers worldwide.