Petro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana had reached Manhattan in the fall of 1891; it was only about eighteen months later that Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci arrived there. The many similarities between these two works were noticed immediately. According to the unnamed New York Times reviewer,
“Leoncavallo was happy in the possession of a good story of love, jealousy, and slaughter, built on lines similar to those of Mascagni’s terse tragedy… No one can deny that the librettist has treated the story in the manner of the contemporaneous Italian music drama after the notable pattern set by Boito in his [and Verdi’s] Otello ... Leoncavallo, like Mascagni, has followed the example of Verdi in his powerful setting.”
Yet this same reviewer notes that the new production being staged at New York’s Grand Opera House was put forward hastily and “out of season” (June 16, 1893) with “inadequate surroundings and a company of insufficient ability.” Singers that night were characterized by “much vociferation … finesse was quite out of the question. The chorus was in deep water nearly all the time, and the orchestra was not equal to its task.” The impresario held responsible was Gustav Hinrichs, who had earlier jumped the gun on Oscar Hammerstein by bringing Cavalleria to Philadelphia before it was performed in New York during October, 1891 [see our blog post #1 from 03/06/2014].
Which of the two new works did this Times reviewer prefer? It seems clear that it was Cavalleria. By comparison, he finds Pagliacci to be “without that broad sweeping power” he ascribes to both Mascagni and Verdi; and the serenade of the Harlequin (Beppe/Peppe) “suffers by comparison with Turiddu’s serenade behind the curtain” in Cavalleria. The reviewer concludes by asserting that “the decision is always in favor of Cavalleria” even as “last evening’s performance was not a fair test of the new work.”