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Operapedia: Cavalleria Rusticana 

Henry Stewart defends the honor of Pietro Mascagni’s game-changing tragedy.

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First Performances

The music publisher Sonzogno had had some success publishing Italian versions of French operas, but it wanted to establish its own repertory of new Italian works, so it held contests for new one-acts. Pietro Mascagni, a young, working-class bandmaster, scrambled to finish Cavalleria Rusticana in time for the second contest, where it beat the other seventy-two entries. His opera had its premiere in Rome in May 1890. But “few people,” Alan Mallach writes in The Autumn of Italian Opera, “found themselves drawn on such a delightful evening to hear a new unheralded opera by an unknown composer.” Big mistake!

The Basics

A peasant spurns his lover for his true love, a married woman; the rejected paramour tattles to the cuckolded husband, who kills the peasant in a duel.

The Plot Thickens

The libretto was based on Giovanni Verga’s play, adapted (at the urging of actress Eleonora Duse, who then starred in it) from his collection Vita dei Campi. (His Sicily-set works were so opera-ready that ten composers in the Sonzogno competition used them.) Gangster shows have often borrowed Mascagni’s music; the connection between mob and material runs deep. Cavalleria is “akin to the official ideology of the Sicilian mafia,” John Dickie writes in Cosa Nostra. “The mafia was not an organization, it was believed, but a sense of defiant pride and honour, rooted deep in the identity of every Sicilian.”
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Something Completely Different

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1976 production at San Francisco Opera was controversial for its salacious additions. “The anticlericalism (a Ponnelle trademark) of the ‘Inneggiamo’ ensemble was silly,” OPERA NEWS reported in 1977. “What does a parishioner mutilating himself with a broken wine bottle have to do with the irony of an excommunicated Santuzza joining the crowd in prayer?” This Santuzza was obviously pregnant and “shunned with ostentatious fervor by the rest of the village,” the San Francisco Gate reported about a 2003 restaging by Ponnelle’s assistant, Vera Lúcia Calábria. “After a while, you start to wonder why they don’t simply drive a stake through her heart and be done with it.”

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Hit Tune

The opera is known best for its Intermezzo, which divides the one act into two halves. It’s melodious and romantic, filled with gauzy wonder and stark yearning. Martin Scorsese employs it over the opening titles of Raging Bull. The piece and other Mascagni music used in the movie “create a profound contrast with the [film’s] often brutal professional and domestic violence,” Dwight DeReiter writes in The Daily Book of Classical Music. “The music helps give the audience an understanding of the delicate balance between love and jealousy, compassion and violent temper that seems to drive the legendary boxer”—not to mention the characters in the opera!


“The public went completely wild after the premiere, and Mascagni was called out twenty times for bows,” OPERA NEWS  reported in 1941. “The newspaper critics, generally caustic and bad humored, unanimously declared that Verdi’s successor had been found.” Even Verdi himself was impressed. He’d asked his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, to bring him the piano reduction of Cavalleria, which Ricordi then heard him playing one evening. “The next morning Verdi turned to him and pointed to the score,” OPERA NEWS reported in 1960: “‘Then it’s not true that the Italian melodic tradition is dead….’” Most of Mascagni’s subsequent operas have been forgotten, but until his death in 1945 he remained a leading cultural figure in Italy, counting among his acquaintances Mussolini and Pope Pius XII.
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Surprise Showstopper

“Tu qui, Santuzza?,” in which the scorned Santuzza confronts her wayward lover, Turiddu, is scorching, with passages so ardently lyrical they hurt. Film director Michael Haneke uses the duet in both his original Funny Games and his Hollywood remake, as part of a game played in a car by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts (in the American version). They have to identify who’s singing; both times, it’s Jussi Björling and Renata Tebaldi. Though opera fans will recognize the aria’s foreshadowing of violence, Haneke deploys it, along with an aria from Handel’s Atalanta, to lull the audience into a false sense of calm, rudely disrupted by a burst of John Zorn.

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The Performance We Wish We'd Seen

In 1969, a labor dispute at the Metropolitan Opera led to a lockout that canceled the beginning of the season. So the planned pairing of Fiorenza Cossotto and Plácido Domingo in Franco Zeffirelli’s Cavalleria was delayed almost a year. “It was a case distinctly of better late than never,” The New York Times reported. Recordings of Domingo’s Turiddu reveal unrivaled passion and power in voice and characterization. “Franco liked the idea of Turiddu as a very macho Sicilian womanizer,” Domingo writes in My Operatic Roles. But “we discussed it a lot, and I asked him, please, could we do something a little bit more subtle, more human. Because this is one of the most important things about the role.”

In Pop Culture

In the much maligned Godfather Part III, semiretired mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has a son, Anthony (Franc D’Ambrosio), who drops out of law school against his father’s wishes to pursue a career as an opera singer. The Corleones eventually travel to Palermo, Sicily, for his stage debut, at Teatro Massimo, as Turiddu, and the film climaxes at the performance of Cavalleria—a tale of revenge, Wikipedia points out, during which multiple acts of revenge occur. Indeed, several characters are killed, including the Pope (!), culminating in an attempted assassination of Michael, during which his daughter is inadvertently killed; Pacino and Diane Keaton grieve in the moment to the “Intermezzo.”
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Time and Place

Verismo was a literary- and theatrical-realism movement in Italy, and Cavalleria was the first verismo opera. The genre favored violent stories about ordinary people with real emotions. A later example, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, is almost always now performed with Cavalleria. “Jealousy is the storm, the common climate, which binds these two short works as inseparable twins,” OPERA NEWS reported in 1952. Both are set in small towns on religious holidays (in Cavalleria, on Easter, often celebrated by Italians with a festival) and end with murdered sinners. Mascagni was also inspired by the passion, murder and Mediterranean setting in Bizet’s Carmen.

Where It Is This Season

Fourteen productions have been announced for the 2017–18 season, including the return in January of David McVicar’s production at the Met, starring Roberto Alagna, Eva-Maria Westbroek and the great Željko Lučić as the jealous husband, Alfio. spacer 


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