Cavalleria rusticana

Pietro Mascagni

Cavalleria rusticana

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Along with Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (1892), Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) is the primary example of Italian verismo (literally, "truthism" or "realism"). Cavalleria rusticana was both the best and worst thing that happened to Mascagni, for its success -- never to be repeated -- weighed upon the composer all his life.

Giovanni Verga's (1840-1922) play Cavalleria rusticana was staged for the first time in 1884 to great acclaim. That same year, Mascagni saw the play in Milan, but considered using it as the basis of an opera only four years later, when he learned of the publisher Sonzogno's competition for a one-act opera, in 1888. (Mascagni claimed that his wife sent Sonzogno the score of Cavalleria rusticana, when he had planned to submit another work.) The composer commissioned Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti (1859-1934) to write a libretto and Targioni-Tozzetti sought help from Guido Menasci. The two finished the libretto by December 1888; Mascagni completed the score about six months later. Awarded the first prize in Sonzogno's competition, Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana premiered on May 17, 1890, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Its success was immediate and unparalleled, it was translated into several languages and performed throughout the world within a year.

Mascagni stated his desire to remain close to Verga's original, and this is generally the case. However, Targioni-Tozzetti and Menasci made one important dramatic change. In Verga's, play, Santuzza disappears after she fulfills her dramatic function in her conversation with Alfio. At the end of the opera, she returns to center stage and faints.

There are significant parallels between Cavalleria and the hard-hitting realism and expressive music of Bizet's Carmen. Both take jealousy as the primary dramatic motivation, and both have Mediterranean settings with an emphasis on local color; Mascagni produces the latter by using a Sicilian dialect in Turiddu's serenade during the innovative orchestral Prelude (innovative primarily for its inclusion of this central sung passage). The key of F major, traditionally a "rustic" key, dominates the Prelude.

Leitmotives serve an important function in Cavalleria. The most powerful of these is the lugubrious theme accompanying Santuzza's entrance and reappearing at several climactic moments. Among these are "Mala Pasqua," in which Santuzza berates Turiddu and at the tragic ending of the piece, suggesting that the theme represents cruel fate rather than Santuzza. Musical illustration of a different type occurs in Alfio's entrance aria, in which the unsettling rhythms and malign melody belie the wonderful world he describes. Alternating recitative and arioso convey myriad feelings in the duet for Turiddu and Santuzza ("Tu qui, Santuzza?").

In some aspects of the formal organization of Cavalleria, Mascagni takes a step backward. This is most apparent in the composer's use of set "numbers," which Verdi had almost abandoned in the recent Otello (1887). This traditional plan allowed Mascagni to communicate his ideas more directly and create a series of continuous scenes in which characters could express their individual passions.

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