More Than ‘Pagliacci:’ A Look At Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Other Operas

By David Salazar

To this day, Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s identity has been defined by one opera. And perhaps for all of eternity, the Italian composer, born on April 23, 1857, that opera, “Pagliacci,” will be his only recognizable contribution to culture.

Of course, “Pagliacci” is a masterful opera that is one of the finest dramatic creations in the genre and there is no shame in Leoncavallo being only recognized for that opera. And yet, it is essential to note that the composer did far more work. In fact, he composed a total of 10 operas and nine operettas throughout his career. Here is a look at the other operas he wrote and how you can check them out.

I Medici

His second opera, which centered on the Medici family, premiered over a year after “Pagliacci.” It was supposed to be the first of a trilogy of works in the vein of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” But he never completed the other two works. The work did get a recording back in 2010 with Plácido Domingo and Daniela Dessì leading the cast. 


Based on the life of English poet Thomas Chatterton, this opera was composed in 1876 but premiered in 1896. Despite never becoming a repertory staple, the opera is actually among the first operas committed to recording in its full version. Leoncavallo actually conducts the recording for Gramophone Company.

La Bohème

Everyone knows the legend surrounding this opera. Supposedly, Puccini decided on his “Bohème” only after hearing that Leoncavallo was working on his own version of the story. Puccini’s, of course, is arguably the most famous of operas while Leoncavallo’s lives in obscurity. This version actually spends more time with Musette than Puccini’s work does. This opera has a few recordings with rather famous singers. A 1958 recording features Ettore Bastianini, among others, with Francesco Molinari-Pradelli conducting. A 1981 version stars Lucia Popp, Bernd Weikl and Franco Bonisolli while a 1990 edition showcases Bruno Praticò.


The 1900 premiere of this opera was conducted by Arturo Toscanini and the opera actually enjoyed moderate success for the ensuing decades thereafter. It follows the story of French music hall singer Zazà as she takes on a doomed love affair. A recent recording was released starring Riccardo Massi and Ermonela Jaho, with Maurizio Benini conducting.


This 1912 opera had a solid run in London and the US, making it the second-most performed opera by the composer after “Pagliacci.” This work is based on a Pushkin narrative poem and tracks a love triangle that goes completely wrong. Thematically, it actually adheres quite closely to “Pagliacci” and it would be interesting to see the works presented as a double bill. There are numerous recordings of the opera.

The Rest of His Operas

“Der Roland von Berlin” was the composer’s German language work that premiered in 1904. After that work, “Maia” premiered in 1910. His “Goffredo Mameli” premiered in 1916 and his final work, “Edipo Re” appeared in 1920. The latter does have a certain mystery surrounding it as some believe it might not have even been composed by him. There is actually a recording of the opera, however.


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