In the history of the Opera tradition, many genres developed over the centuries. The post-Romantic Verismo (Italian for realism) tradition stood apart for its naturalism and for focusing on the lives of the average contemporary people, subjects considered until then too poor and unfit to be protagonists of such pieces.
In the Verismo movement, the most well-known opera is the Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) by Pietro Mascagni, a theatrical masterpiece with a fascinating history and complicated legacy.
Pietro Mascagni and the composition of Cavalleria Rusticana
Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945) was an Italian composer from Tuscany who dedicated his entire life to his musical career. He composed many operas, like L’Amico Fritz (1891), Iris (1898), and Le Maschere (1901). However, Mascagni is mostly known as “one opera man,” as his fame mainly lies in Cavalleria Rusticana‘s incredible success.
Cavalleria Rusticana was adapted after the Italian libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti (1863-1934) and Guido Menasci (1867-1925). The story was based on an 1880 short novel by Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), a Sicilian Verismo writer considered the leader of the Italian literary movement.
A young Mascagni asked Targioni-Tozzetti and Menasci to write the libretto for a competition for new composers.
All participants were invited to submit a one-act opera, and three selected winners would then stage their opera in Rome. As the deadline approached, Mascagni almost gave up on applying as he felt the Cavalleria Rusticana had been written too swiftly and without enough effort to win.
However, Mascagni’s wife, Argenide Marcellina ‘Lina’ Mascagni (1862-1946), decided to apply for him on the last day of submission, believing in her husband’s talent. As fate would have it, Lina’s actions led to Mascagni winning the competition and receiving his life’s greatest success.
After Cavalleria Rusticana was first performed at Teatro Costanzi in Rome, the spectators (which included the Italian Queen Margherita of Savoy) went crazy, applauding, screaming, and waving handkerchiefs. That evening, the public symbolically crowed Mascagni as the new king of Italian opera.
The Cavalleria Rusticana, in many ways, shaped and influenced the aesthetic of the Verismo tradition in opera. Notably, it inspired Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892). To this day, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci are regularly played as a double bill.
Synopsis: a tragic Easter Sunday
Cavalleria Rusticana, which can be translated into Rustic Cavalry, is known for its simple plot shaped by jealousy and a fight for honor. With simple yet energetic music, Mascagni captured the power and drama within this bloody story in just one act.
The plot takes place in a small Sicilian village in the late 19th Century, a setting Verga often used in his novels. It is Easter Sunday, and the villagers going to church open the opera by celebrating a beautiful spring morning.
Spring should bring love and new life, yet the village is about to experience a story of romantic affairs, betrayal, and tragedy. Offstage, we hear young Turiddu singing, praising Lola’s beauty and his devoted love for her. However, we soon discover that Turiddu had previously courted Lola, but as he left for the army, the girl married the village’s Carter Alfio.
To comfort himself, once back from the military, Turiddu begins a relationship with a peasant girl named Santuzza, who falls deeply in love with him. Yet, Lola, jealous of Santuzza, now wants her former lover back, and both start an affair.
We learn this as Santuzza sings her tragic ballad to Mamma Lucia, Turrido’s mother and village innkeeper. The audience also meets Alfio as he sings about the joys of his simple life, work, and marriage, still unaware of the affair going behind his back.
When Turiddu finally comes onto the scene – after having spent the previous night with Lola – he and Santuzza argue. The situation escalates as Lola comes on stage and openly mocks Santuzza. Left by Turiddu without love or honor, Santuzza wants revenge and tells Alfio what’s happening. She regrets her actions; however, Alfio swears vengeance and challenges Turridu to a dual.
The villagers’ joys following Easter mass and the beginning of spring are soon forgotten as the terror of the dual takes over. Turiddu suddenly realizes his mistakes and asks his mother to look after poor Santuzza if he does not return. He kisses Mamma Lucia goodbye and rushes offstage. Mamma Lucia and Santuzza are left alone on stage, frightened. The opera ends in tragedy, as a woman cries out that Turiddu has been killed, and Santuzza and Mamma Lucia faint.
-Cavalleria Rusticana, Intermezzo Sinfonico. The symphonic interlude of the opera, located between the eighth and ninth scenes, is one of the most popular pieces. Thanks to its orchestral character, based entirely on the use of strings, it has had great success even outside the operatic repertoire. (Audio and text source: Director: Simon Schindler, Fulda Symphonic Orchestra/Wikipedia)
The seventy-minute piece met incredible success during and after Mascagni’s life. The work has been recorded countless times, translated into English, French, German, and Hungarian, and adapted into movies at least five times.
The opera’s Intermezzo has received the most success, being used in many movies’ soundtracks: it was featured in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), Philippe de Broca’s Le Bossu (1997), and Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999). Most notably, a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana is featured in the climax of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. However, aside from the Cavalleria Rusticana, Mascagni’s other compositions have been forgotten for mainly two reasons.
Firstly, the popularity of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana came to haunt him. Mascagni wrote fifteen operas in total, but none of them could match his initial success. In truth, Mascagni’s repertoire vastly varies in styles, stories, music, and themes. Yet all his future works fell short as they were always unfairly compared to Cavalleria Rusticana‘s beloved style. Some suggest that maybe Mascagni had been crowned ‘the king of Italian opera’ too soon into his career, giving the composer no room for artistic freedom.
Secondly, post World War 2, Mascagni’s reputation was ruined due to his association with the Fascist Party. Due to his political association with the regime, his work (except for Cavalleria Rusticana) has been ignored and forgotten.
It is unclear whether Mascagni’s adhesion to the Fascist Party in 1932 was sincere or just a political move to survive in Mussolini’s Italy. Some even theorize that Mascagni’s final opera, Nerone (1935), was written to attack and criticize the Duce himself. We might never know: Mascagni died just as WW2 was ending, and he had no opportunity to comment on the matter.
While we cannot ignore Mascagni’s connection to Mussolini and Fascism, the Italian composer still deserves our attention and ears. Mascagni refused to play it safe and ride on the fame of the Cavalleria Rusticana. Instead, he moved away from the Verismo movement and experimented with romanticism, orientalism, and comedies.
Mascagni’s fifteen operas all varied in music, moods, and themes. His later compositions are still not widely played in famous opera houses, but we have the fortune to listen to all his work online.
Nonetheless, the Cavalleria Rusticana remains the quintessential example of the Verismo movement. The composition introduced characters from the peasant world, ignored subjects by opera composers for years. With simple yet captivating music and plot, Mascagni drags us into the world his opera creates on stage. Cavalleria Rusticana still deserves the same applauses and praises it received the first time it was played at the Teatro Costanzi in 1890.