The immense success of Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana, had a fundamental influence on the musical future of Leonvallo (1857-1919). At this time, Leoncavallo suffered a failure with his first opera I Medici. It has been commissioned by the world famous publisher Ricordini, but on seeing it, the company rejected it. The success of the younger composer piqued the naturally disappointed Leoncavallo, who conceded that Cavalleria Rusticana had followed changes in audience tastes, and created a demand for a new type of opera, which offered great possibilities, not least, the ability to gain a reputation at great speed. The comparison between Mascagni and Leoncavallo, and the statistic that their works are often performed on the same programme, is not accidental. A mere two years after Cavalleria was premiered, the Milan Dal Verme theatre staged a new opera, I Pagliacci on May 17th 1892, and this time, success was assured.
Every element of Leoncavallo's opera is rooted in verismo. An overheated naturalism, also defines the outer boundaries of the style. Romantic jealousy motivates the strands of the action, but the two level communication, the real feelings and the caricatured gestures of commedia dell'arte result in a more complex dramaturgy. The intention to present merciless reality, but this almost endangers the ideal of authenticity, since a theatrical comedy and real life are inseparably mixed with each other, indeed in certain places they even change places. In addition, what is regarded as the natural moral perspective is turned on its head. While in Otello for example, it is unambiguous that Otello fatally demeans himself with murder – irrespective whether he did it based on a false accusation or not – in I Pagliacci Canio scoffs at the feminine faithlessness – we can think of his monologue before the procession onto the stage %u201CAre you a man? No, only Bajazzo is that!”, – as if he had been ennobled as a human being by stabbing Nedda and then Silvio.
As for the music in I Pagliacci, the distinguished late 19th century Austrian critic Eduard Hanslick scored a critical bullseye when he stated the Leoncavallo was a less original composer than Mascagni but a better musician. In its structure (for example the organically linking prologue to the end of the overture, the increasing of dramatic tension with the instrumental interlude at the end of Act I), and its dramaturgy, Leoncavallo closely adheres to the model provided by Cavalleria Rusticana, but due to its more expressive and powerful orchestration, more original and refined treatment of harmony, his work is better worked out in its details.