Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) is the author of one of the most popular operas, “I pagliacci”. Because of the numerous contradictions in his biography he is also known as “Opera’s Mystery Man”. The Italian composer brought world class classical music to Brissago. Every year, the village on the shores of Lake Maggiore commemorates its honorary citizen with a festival.
Ruggero was born in Naples in 1857 as the son of an aristocratic judge from Apulia and a Neapolitan painter. After his studies at the conservatory of Naples, he went to Bologna and Paris where he met Jules Massenet and Victor Hugo.
After having worked as a teacher for several years and having made unsuccessful attempts to bring to stage some operas, in 1890 he witnessed the great success of Pietro Mascagni’s opera “Cavalleria rusticana”. As a result he composed his own verismo opera “I pagliacci”, which was first performed in the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 21st of May 1892.
The opera immediately met with the approval of the audience and the critics and Leoncavallo became famous all over the world. In the following years he wrote further operas such as “La Bohème” (1897), “Zazà” (1900) or “Der Roland von Berlin” (1904). It is thanks to these works that Leoncavallo has been named the greatest Italian librettist of his time.
Honorary citizen of Brissago
On the height of his career he ordered to construct the beautiful Villa Myriam in Brissago, behind the Grand Hotel which would have been built between 1904 and 1906. Leoncavallo stood up for the construction of this luxury lodging and was a member of the hotel company’s board of directors. The Grand Hotel became a magnet for many great names of the time and offered an elegant atmosphere for numerous concerts.
Brissago was proud of the presence of the famous librettist. After Leoncavallo returned from Berlin were his opera “Der Roland von Berlin” celebrated a successful première, on 16th of December 1905 the community meeting of Brissago conferred him honorary citizenship. Leoncavallo, less talented in dealing with his fortune than with the piano, lived in Brissago until the outbreak of the First World War. Thereafter he spent his twilight years in Montecatini Terme until his death in 1919.
The composer was buried in Florence and 70 years later his last will was fulfilled and his corpse was brought to Brissago. Leoncavallo now rests in the columned hall of the church Madonna di Pietro, one of the most beautiful sacred buildings in Ticino.
A festival and a museum are reminiscent of the great composer
Many things have changed since Leoncavallo left Brissago. The Grand Hotel no longer exists, neither does the Villa Myriam and even less the spirit of that time. What is reminiscent of the composer’s stay is the Museo Leoncavallo as well as the Festival Ruggero Leoncavallo which takes place every year under the direction of the tenor Ottavio Palmieri.
Over the years, international celebrities have attended the festival, including Renato Bruson, Francesca Patané, and the Amati Quartet. The event takes place over three weekends and offers a varied program, from "bel canto" to the exploration of new musical territories.
The museum which opened its doors in 2002 shows that Leoncavallo’s creative activity cannot be reduced to “I pagliacci” – his compositional work is indeed far richer. The showpiece of the museum is Leoncavallo’s completely restored grand piano “Erard Paris” from 1841, an absolute rarity.
By the way: the statue in front of the museum in the Palazzo Branca-Baccalà is representing the hero of Leoncavallo’s opera “Der Roland von Berlin” and is a gift of the last German emperor Wilhelm II to his favourite composer.
Konrad Dryden: Leoncavallo. Life and Works, Toronto 2007.