Ruggero Leoncavallo was born in Naples, Italy on April 23, 1857 to a predominantly musical family. He spent time working as a pianist in Egypt where his uncle Giuseppe served as the director of the press department at the Foreign Ministry. Egyptian revolts would force him to leave and relocate to Paris where he met his wife Berthe Rambaud.

The couple eventually made their way to Milan and that’s where Leoncavallo began composing operas. He went on to not only write some very well-known operas he also is considered one of the top Italian librettists of all time. In fact, he is one of the few composers to write the librettos for his own operas.

Leoncavallo has undoubtedly been a great influence in the world of opera and we would like to take a look at some of his most memorable works.

Leoncavallo is known for the famous opera pieces he composed.


1. Pagliacci

Italian for “clowns” Pagliacci is a famous two-act opera with music and libretto by Leoncavallo. In fact, this opera and its weeping clown, have been parodied and referenced in pop culture as much as any opera ever written. From the Marx Brothers, to Seinfeld, to the Simpsons, Leoncavallo’s most celebrated opera has made its way into pop culture infamy.

His most performed opera Pagliacci was first premiered in Milan on May 21, 1892 at the Teatro Dal Verme. Arturo Toscanini conducted and the performers included Adelina Stehle, Fiorello Giraud, Victor Maurel, and Mario Ancona.

It all begins when an actor named Tonio, in his costume, informs the audience that while this is a performance it is important to remember that actors are people too. From there we move into the first act and meet a troupe of vaudevillians. The arrive at a new village and begin to prepare for their next performance. Canio, the leader and Pagliacco, helps Nedda, his girlfriend, down from the cart they are traveling on.

The rest of the crew teases Canio that Tonio loves Nedda and was planning on stealing her away from Canio. Canio insists that any man that would try to make a move on Nedda would pay the price. He also adds that he trusts her. Nedda is a bit shaken and scared by Tonio’s intensity.

Tonio does in fact try to woo Nedda but she rejects him and we are led to believe that Nedda is the trustworthy woman Canio believes her to be. Little do we know that indeed Nedda does have a lover, but it isn’t Tonio. It is Silvio and he begs Nedda to marry him and, even though she is frightened, she agrees. Tonio overhears the entire conversation and resigns to tell Canio of the lover’s plan. He runs off to find the troupe’s leader.


2. La bohéme

Not to be mistaken with the bohemians that Puccini wrote about this opera was written at the same time. It turns out that Puccini and Leoncavallo wrote their versions of La bohéme at the same time but Leoncavallo started his first, which would make it the subject of a public argument between the two composers.

There are different accounts of what happened between the two, and it depends on which composer the scholar sides with. One account says that Leoncavallo went to Puccini with the libretto and, when rejected, resolved to writing the opera himself. Another says that Puccini was unaware of Leoncavallo’s writing an opera of the same title.

Never the less, Puccini’s version reached the heights to infamy while Leoncavallo’s has nearly disappeared. Puccini’s was an instant hit while Leoncavallo’s, which was premiered a year later, failed miserably. It is said by some that had Leoncavallo’s version come out first than his would be the famous version while others write that the libretto for Leoncavallo’s version is less than par.

La Bohème is probably the most famous work composed by Leoncavallo.

The premiere for Leoncavallo’s La Bohème was in 1897, in the Teatro La Fenice, Venice.


Who is to truly know what would have been? Puccini is quoted as saying, when first learning of Leoncavallo’s working on an opera, “The audience will decide” and we suppose this is true. Yet, not many audiences are given the chance since Leoncavallo’s is rarely, if ever, resurrected.

This work consisting of four acts begins with Gaudenzio, an innkeeper, doing his best to get rid of the Bohemians, who are staying at his inn and owe him money for rent. Besides, they were always in trouble. The innkeeper asks for the money he is owed but they do not have it. They fight, comically.

In the next act we meet Musetta. She is heartbroken because her lover has left her. She won’t pay her debts so her belongings including her furniture, has been repossessed and is being taken away. The Bohemians stop by her flat and begin to rejoice in their lives. In doing so they wake up all of their neighbors and another fight begins.


3. I Medici


This third opera on our list was originally planned to be part of a trilogy titled Crepusculum with two other works, Savonarola and I Borgia but the last two were ever finished. It is said that Leoncavallo’s intended to write an “epic poem” but critics claimed the writing was not new or unique and he didn’t achieve the comparison to Richard Wagner’s own trilogy titled Der Ring des Nibelungen he was looking for.

I Medici was not a success when it was premiered in Milan at the Teatro Dal Verme on November 9, 1893 and has never become a standard repertoire opera.

The main focus of the plot is on the Medici family, a banking clan who were very influential in politics. They would become a royal family who first gained celebrity from their patriarch Cosimo de’Medici. The particular incident that this Leoncavallo opera focuses on is the Pazzi conspiracy, which was a plan devised by the Pazzi family and their followers to take over the Republic of Florence and get rid of the Medici family.

We have Giuliano de’ Medici who loves Simonetta Cattanei. She is very aware of the conspiracy brewing against his family and makes an attempt to warn her lover. Before she can she is murdered by Montesecco, who was hired to kill her by those conspiring to kill Medici.

Lorenzo de’Medici gets away before he can be killed with his friends help. His friend is the poet Poliziano. Through the opera Medici gains the alliance of his people and, in the end, they hang the schemers for all to see.


4. Zingari

This Leoncavallo opera consists of two acts and is the first on our list to have a libretto not written by the composer himself. The libretto for Zingari was written by Enrico Cavacchioli and Guglielmo Emanuel. Cavacchioli was a celebrated Italian poet and Emanuel was a newspaper man besides a librettist.

Zingari was based on a work by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin titled The Gypsies. The premiere for this Leoncavallo opera was premiered on September 16, 1912 in London at the Hippodrome Theatre. This is another obscure piece by Leoncavallo but the difference is this piece had a better reception than the last few we have discussed.

The run in London and the United States through the 1912 and 1913 season were incredibly long. This makes Zingari the second most performed Leoncavallo opera after Pagliacci.

It begins with a lovely gypsy woman named Fleana. She has been discovered leaving the gypsy camp at night to meet a stranger to their group. This stranger is a young nobleman by the name of Radu. When they are discovered Radu vows that if the gypsies allow him to marry Fleana he will leave his position and join their group.

The gypsies all agree except for Tamar, a poet who also loves Fleana and declares it for the group to hear. Fleana is not in love with Tamar and tells him so and her lover Radu challenges Tamar to a duel. Tamar flees and the couple weds while, unseen by the group, Radu sings a melancholy song.

After a year of marriage Radu notices a change in Fleana. She is cold and distant but he does not know why. Radu comes upon his wife singing a passionate love song while in her caravan and he comes to the conclusion that she must love another man. Radu asks her if it true she tells him it is.

Fleana tells Radu she does not love him anymore and she continues to sing her wild song. Then Fleana runs to Tamar who rejoices in song to have his love. Radu tries to stop her from running away but it is no use.

Fleana and Tamar disappear into a hut after proclaiming their love to one another. Little do they know that Radu has seen them. He sneaks up on them and sets the hut a blaze and the lover perish horribly in a fire started by a jilted husband.


5. Zazá


This last opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo also has a libretto written by the composer. It premiered on November 10, 1900 at the Teatro Lirico di Milano and starred Rosina Storchio as the title character. Storchio, was a celebrated Italian lyric soprano who starred in the premiere productions of operas by Puccini, Mascagni, and Giordano, as well as Leoncavallo.

Edoardo Garbin performed as Milio, Mario Sammarco played Cascart, and Clorinda Pini-Corsi performed as Anaïde. Arturo Toscanini conducted the premiere and thus began a long run for this notable Leoncavallo opera around the globe.

Since its inception this opera has been produced over fifty times in places like Palermo, Paris, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Cairo, San Francisco, and New York. It premiered at The Metropolitan Opera on January 16, 1920. This production was conducted by Roberto Moranzoni and directed by David Belasco. The starring role was played by Geraldine Farrar and other players included Giulio Crimi and Pasquale Amato.

Zazá is the story of a singer by the same name who is French. She is having an affair with Milio but decides to end their relationship. Zazá makes this decision when she finds out that Milio is married to another woman.


For more prestigious opera pieces performed in the best opera houses on the planet, check out Cennarium’s opera category!

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