Renowned tenor Dennis O’Neill stars as Canio in this new recording in English of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Disappointed with his,lack of fame and frustrated with the success of Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavalla shut himself up in his house for five months,and composed the libretto and music for Pagliacci. He took the score to Ricordi’s rival Sonzogno who arranged its first performance on 21 May 18992 in Milan under Toscanini, and it was so successful that it made Leoncavallo an overnight celebrity.
The plot was broadly based on what he remembered of one of his father’s law cases - a middle-aged actor who murders his unfaithful young wife. To this he added the commedia dell’arte playlet and the Zola-inspired prologue. But Leoncavallo’s skill lay more in his ability to clothe these devices in outstanding music. He was an accomplished librettist; his scenario is at once credible and swift-moving. The characterization may not run very deep, but is convincing enough to make us believe that the characters are real people. For his score, Leoncavallo took as much as he needed from Wagnerian methods - that composer’s music and personality had made a great impression on him. There is rudimentary use of Leitmotiv, and neither the harmony nor the orchestration could have been as it is had Wagner not existed. However the score is recognizably Italian in flavour, and the various set-pieces are fully integrated into the structure in the manner of late Verdi. In performance, Pagliacci stands or falls by the writing for, and the interpretation of, Canio. Leoncavallo reveals an honest man felled by jealousy and remorse, a fitting successor to Verdi’s Otello, and requiring a heroic tenor of like mettle. His final aria, rising to a climax on top B, pierces the heart, raising the last pages of the opera from melodrama to true tragedy.