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Ruggero Leoncavallo ( Naples, 1857 – Tuscany, 1919), Italian composer of operas, is famous for only one major work. Whilst writing many operas, both “grand’ and “comic”, some of which enjoyed considerable success, it is for one opera - ”Pagliacci” (The Clowns) ; and one song – Mattinata - that he is known today.
”Pagliacci” is the age old “Broken hearted clown” story, and is a tour-de-force for the tenor, the clown, Cannio, who discovers his wife is being unfaithful, but “the show must go on”. The aria, Vesti la giubba (“On with the Motley”) was the first million selling record, when sung by Enrico Caruso in the early years of the gramophone; and is still held up as the epitome of the operatic “sob-song”. The prologue to the opera is a firm favorite with baritones. Pagliacci is a short opera, and is usually coupled in performance with “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni.
Leoncavallo’s song “Matinatta” is frequently heard in recitals by tenors. It was popularized in the late 1940s as “You’re Breaking My Heart (‘cos you’re leaving)” - the last hit version was by Keeley Smith in the 1960s.
With Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni he wrote in a style called “verismo” (reality) – operas that often featured the seedy side of life, and whose characters were usually lower class, or were immoral or brutal.