Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana

Written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Pietro Mascagni is almost entirely known for his first opera, Cavalleria rusticana, though he wrote more than a dozen operas and operettas between 1885 and 1934, some of which were also successful in their day. It would be a bit reductive to call him a one-hit wonder, but even so—what a hit, what a wonder. Cavalleria rusticana is musically gorgeous, dramatically gripping, slyly inventive, and historically significant. “It was like a door that suddenly blew open onto a sealed room. A fresh, cool wind from the country blew away the faint smell of mildew,” remembered one Italian critic. “The public, which was the people, heard their voice in it and were overwhelmed.”

Mascagni’s life also makes for a great rags-to-riches story. He was born in Livorno, Tuscany, the son of a baker. In 1883 he entered the Milan conservatory where he was roommates with a young Giacomo Puccini, but dropped out two years later to become an itinerant conductor. By 1886, newlywed with a baby on the way, he settled in Cerignola, a rustic town in Apulia, far to the south. He was hired to teach piano and revive a municipal orchestra, teaching every instrument to whoever wanted to play. “Cerignola is a bit primitive, but they like me a lot,” he wrote to his father.

But an advertisement in a musical periodical revived more cosmopolitan ambitions. The publisher Sonzogna was sponsoring a contest for “an opera in one act—in one or two scenes—on an idyllic, serious, or comic subject of the competitor’s choice.” Italian opera was big business, and Sonzogna was scouting new talent. Three finalists would receive a performance in Rome, and the first prize would be awarded 3,000 lire—something like $100,000 today. The deadline was just 11 months from when Mascagni saw the announcement.

Prize Pursuit

Mascagni enlisted Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, a poet and childhood friend, to write the libretto. “This contest, just possibly, could be the beginning of my good fortune,” he said in a letter. “Work as fast as you can.” Targioni-Tozzetti recruited a second writer, Guido Menasci, to hasten the pace.

They selected Cavalleria rusticana, a popular play by Giovanni Verga (1840–1922), as the story. The Sicilian-born Verga founded an Italian literary movement called verismo—naturalism—that portrayed lower social classes and featured unflinching, almost clinical depictions of sexuality and violence. Verga first published Cavalleria rusticana as a short story and then adopted it as a play, which Mascagni saw in Milan in 1884.

Mascagni didn’t intend to bring verismo, as a movement, from literature into opera—it was simply source material that worked for his musical and dramatic purposes at the time. But he ended up inspiring a giovane scuola (young school) of composers including Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, Francesco Cilea, and Puccini, who became closely identified with the style. They replaced operatic staples like kings, counts, and contrived coincidences with peasants, painters, policemen, and real-world problems. Vocally, they moved away from bel canto flights of virtuosity in favor of dramatic declamation and more streamlined lyricism.

Targioni-Tozzetti sent Mascagni the libretto bit-by-bit through the mail, and the composer devoted long hours to it, working right up to the deadline in May 1889. According to one account, he got cold feet over submitting Cavalleria rusticana, and his wife had to sneak the score off his desk and mail it herself at the last moment (more recent scholarship suggests he happily mailed it himself). As he waited for news from the competition, things in Cerignola took a turn for the worse—an economic depression and a season of crop failures threatened his livelihood. “A municipality that lays off the midwife and closes the middle school to save money cannot possibly spend on a music master,” he fretted.

What a relief on February 20, 1890, when he received a telegram confirming he was a semi-finalist, chosen from among 72 entries. He traveled to Rome to demonstrate the opera for the competition jury, playing it on the piano and singing all the parts with help from the panelists. He made the final cut, which resulted in a premiere at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi on May 17.

The first performance played to a half-empty house, but the small audience raved about what they’d seen, and Mascagni won the competition. “Everybody cheered, in the boxes, in the hall, everyone was on their feet,” he wrote to his father. “It was a colossal success like nobody has ever seen … My position is totally changed. I’m going crazy!”

The theater quickly added 13 more performances, and soon the opera was being performed all across Italy as well as internationally, from Saint Petersburg, to Budapest (conducted by Gustav Mahler), to London, to Philadelphia, to Buenos Aires. Mascagni was a celebrity, and in 1896 he left the little town of Cerignola for good.

The Story and Music

Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) takes place in a village square in Sicily on Easter morning. There is a little backstory: Turiddu, a young peasant, recently returned from the army, and learned that his girlfriend, Lola, married Alfio while he was away. Jealous, he rebounds with Santuzza, another peasant girl, but resumes seeing Lola on the side.

The opera itself begins with Turiddu sneakily serenading Lola offstage. The song is not in standard Italian, but in the Sicilian language—an unprecedented attempt at regional authenticity in grand opera. (Mascagni omitted the Siciliano from his initial submission, fearing the jury wouldn’t understand the dialect and might object to off-stage singing.)

Church bells ring out, and villagers (chorus) enter the square. Santuzza comes around, looking for Turiddu. The young man’s mother, Lucia, owns a tavern in the square, and Santuzza asks if she’s seen her son. Lucia says he’s out of town buying wine, but Santuzza knows he was spotted in the village the night before, raising suspicions.

Alfio, a wagon-driver and Lola’s husband, enters the square singing jollily about his work (“Il cavallo scalpita”). Inquiring at the tavern, he reveals that he also saw Turiddu that morning, near his own house, alarming Santuzza. Soon the villagers enter the church and sing an Easter hymn (“Inneggiamo, il Signor non è morto”), interlaced with Santuzza’s verses.

The women decline to attend mass, and Santuzza laments Turiddu’s history with Lola, realizing that they are still lovers (“Voi lo sapete”). Turiddu finally shows up and denies everything, but Lola strolls by on her way to church (“Fior di giaggiolo”), and they all share an awkward moment. Turiddu and Santuzza resume their argument, he throws her to the ground, and she curses him.

Now Santuzza vengefully tells Alfio that Turiddu is sleeping with his wife, igniting a dangerous conflict between the men. Here Mascagni inserts an orchestral Intermezzo for strings and harp—an impassioned waltz that is sometimes excerpted in concert.

Bells ring again, and the townspeople file out of the church and start drinking in the tavern. Turiddu and Alfio argue, punctuated by an ominous cello solo, and Turiddu challenges him to a duel with a bite to the ear. Drunk, Turiddu tells his mother to adopt Santuzza should anything happen to him (“Mama, quel vino è generoso”). He kisses her and leaves to meet Alfio in an orchard. Shortly thereafter, a villager cries out that Turiddu has been murdered, and Santuzza and Lucia crumble in grief.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.