This Week in Music History: The premiere of Cavalleria Rusticana (1890)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This week? Cavalleria Rusticana gave the young Italian composer Pietro Mascagni his big break. The opera, an unlikely competition entry inspired by a verismo short story, was a tremendous success. The audience burst into joyful tears, strangers embraced each other, and Mascagni was hailed “the new Italian maestro!”

“If I had a prophet’s mantle,” wrote one Roman music critic on the morning of May 17, 1890, “I would say this: the name of Pietro Mascagni… unknown until this morning… will be saluted this evening by a joyous public and will obtain perhaps the most sought-after baptism of them all: that of lasting fame.”

Pietro Mascagni was only 26 years old at the time, and an obscure name in the world of Italian opera. But he was indeed about to get his big break.

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)

Like many Italian composers, both young and experienced, Mascagni had decided to enter an opera competition run by the publisher Edoardo Sonzogno, which was announced in July 1888. Casting about for new material to publish, Sonzogno requested one-act operas “on an idyllic, serious, or comic subject of the competitor’s choice,” with prize money of three thousand lire on offer—plus, of course, the chance to have the work performed. Mascagni was among 73 entrants to the competition.

Mascagni hit upon the idea of adapting Giovanni Verga’s Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), a novella and a play which Mascagni had seen in Milan in 1884. This memorable tale of passion and death, set in Sicily, was a prominent work of the verismo school of literature. Verga and other authors including Luigi Capuana aimed to tell stories that were true to life, especially focusing on rural village life, evoked in vivid detail.

Detail from an illustration in an early edition of Giovanni Verga's short story Cavalleria rusticana, circa 1880 (artist unknown)
Detail from an illustration in an early edition of Giovanni Verga’s short story Cavalleria rusticana, circa 1880 (artist unknown)

Cavalleria rusticana is the story of Turiddu, a young man still obsessed with his former love, Lola, even though he is now with Santuzza and Lola is married to Alfio. When Alfio learns that Turiddu has returned to Lola, there can be only one outcome: Turiddu’s murder at Alfio’s hands. The whole opera takes place on an Easter morning, with a church service serenely unfolding in the background.

Against the odds, the unknown Mascagni’s score made it to the shortlist, and was scheduled for performance on May 17. Though the theater was half empty, the performance was a genuine sensation. “You cannot even have the barest idea of what happened in the hall of the Costanzi on that unforgettable evening,” wrote Gemma Bellincioni, who sang Santuzza at that first performance.

After the Siciliana the public applauded; after the prayer they cried out enthusiastically; after the duet between Santuzza and Turiddu they exploded in delirious joy. At the end of the opera the spectators seemed literally to go crazy. They screamed, they waved their handkerchiefs; in the corridors strangers embraced. “We have a new maestro! Hurrah for the new Italian maestro!”

"Sizilianische Bauernehre. Pietro Mascagni : Cavalleria Rusticana" - Scene from near the end of the opera, where Alfio and Turiddu embrace as part of the ceremony before their duel. circa 1890 (artist unknown)
“Sizilianische Bauernehre. Pietro Mascagni : Cavalleria Rusticana,” circa 1890 (artist unknown)

“It has been a long time since one has attended an artistic event of such importance,” one critic wrote. Cavalleria rusticana is still widely performed, and, moreover, played a major part in establishing verismo as an operatic style, not just a literary one. Two years later, another young composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo, had his opera Pagliacci (Clowns) premiered in Milan. Another graphic tale of murderous revenge, it was directly inspired by Mascagni’s work. And it has been virtually inseparable from it ever since. Giancarlo del Monaco’s production of Cav and Pag (as they’re often known) for the Teatro Real, Madrid, is one of many that draws the two works together into one thrillingly passionate whole.

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