Monday, September 21, 2020

An inside look at Cavalleria rusticana

The townspeople in Seattle Opera's last Cavalleria Rusticana ('90). Photo by Matthew McVay.
Seattle Opera opens its Fall Season with a recital featuring the highlights of Mascagni's opera Cavalleria rusticana—“Rustic Chivalry” in Italian, or more euphemistically translated to English as “Country Manners.” Cavalleria allowed city dwellers in northern Italy to daydream about how their rural counterparts lived via the story of a little village in faraway Sicily.  "Set in a Sicilian idyll, Cavalleria rusticana is a tale of frustrated love, betrayal and jealousy—with one of the most beautiful intermezzos ever written," writes Rupert Millar for The Drinks Business magazine. "Nineteenth-century Sicily is a place of rough justice, where wine mixes with blood feuds and violence. The beauty of the surroundings belies a strict, extremely conservative society beholden to codes of honor and chivalry, where death is the only penalty for dishonor or disgrace—the 'rustic chivalry' of the title."  

Learn more about Cavalleria rusticana which was composed by Pietro Mascagni, with libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci, below.

“Country manners” in Sicily at Easter: lust, passion, jealousy, despair, rage, revenge, recrimination, and remorse...all before noon! 

TURIDDU (TENOR), a handsome ex-soldier, is popular among the ladies...maybe TOO popular. 
LOLA (MEZZO-SOPRANO) was his lover before he became a soldier. She may still be his lover.
ALFIO (BARITONE), her husband, is a teamster whose work often takes him out of town. 
SANTUZZA (SOPRANO) surrendered her virtue to Turiddu, and now suspects that was a mistake. 
LUCIA (CONTRALTO), Turiddu’s mother, runs the wine shop in the village. 

Pietro Mascagni
"Pietro Mascagni studied at the conservatory at Milan, but, unable to submit to the discipline of his master, Amilcare Ponchielli, he left to join a traveling opera company. In 1889 he won the first prize in a competition with his one-act opera Cavalleria rusticana, based on a Sicilian melodrama by Giovanni Verga. It was produced at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome, on May 17, 1890, and was an instant success; it subsequently maintained its popularity, usually being given with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s one-act PagliacciLe maschere (1901), reviving the commedia dell’arte, is musically superior, though it had little success. Mascagni succeeded Arturo Toscanini as musical director of La Scala, Milan, in 1929. Among Mascagni’s other operas are L’amico Fritz (1891), Iris (1898), and Nerone (1935), the last glorifying Benito Mussolini." [ Read more on Brittanica ]

From a short story published in 1880, also called “Cavalleria rusticana,” by Giovanni Verga. Verga was born in Sicily, but moved to Milan, the great industrial and cultural center of northern Italy, following Italian unification. His naturalistic fiction was appreciated for its unvarnished depiction of real Sicilian life, including dialogue in Sicilian dialect. He himself made a theater piece from “Cavalleria rusticana” a few years before the creation of Mascagni’s opera.

AMERICA'S 'QUINTESSENTIAL ITALIAN' OPERA: Both Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo's  Pagliacci have come to symbolize Italian culture, particularly in the US. It’s no coincidence that much of Godfather III takes place at a performance of Cavalleria rusticana. The opera's most famous music is the lovely Intermezzo, an orchestral interlude familiar from countless TV shows and movies. Image: still of Godfather III courtesy of Paramount.

In a little Sicilian village, outside the church on Easter Sunday morning, at any time in the last 2,000 years

Turridu and Lola were an item, before he left town to become a soldier. Upon his return, he found she had married Alfio. Turiddu consoled himself by seducing Santuzza. Now, however, Lola and Turiddu have reconnected, and Santuzza is miserable. After she and Turiddu get into a screaming match on the church steps during Easter service, she tells Alfio what his wife has been doing while he’s out of town. Alfio challenges Turiddu to a duel and kills him.

James Hoback (Turiddu) and Makvala Kasrashvili (Santuzza) in Seattle Opera's Cavalleria Rusticana ('90). Photo by Matthew McVay. 

"Verismo is the Italian word for realism, and Cavalleria rusticana is one of the first verismo operas. "Based on the slightly earlier Italian literary verismo, which was itself influenced by French naturalism, operatic verismo was marked by melodramatic, often violent plots with characters drawn from everyday life. Musical devices included passionate declamation by solo voices and emotionally charged harmonies and melodies. The leading exponents were Cavalleria composer Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci, 1892; 'The Clowns'). Another example is Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896). Giacomo Puccini was influenced by verismo, particularly in Tosca (1900), and occasional veristic operas were written in the 20th century—e.g., Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna (1911; 'The Jewels of the Madonna')." [ Read more on Brittanica. ]

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Lola) at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo by Cory Weaver. 

Lola portrayed here by Ginger Costa-Jackson at The Met, occupies the trope of the woman temptress. "Her awareness of her own sexuality is the equal of Turiddu’s and more than a match for his egotism," according to Essentials of European Literature. "One night, when her husband is away on business, Lola confidently seduces Turiddu, inviting him into the house, regardless of what the rest of the village might think. She ensnares him, but he willingly becomes ensnared. Lola clearly establishes the theme of the story—treachery. She betrays Turiddu and betrays her husband twice, once by marrying him without love and once by her seduction of Turiddu." 

Visit to listen to music and explore details about the production. 

A selection of scenes from Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo courtesy of The Drinks Business magazine
Some good things always come in pairs—peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci. Originally, these two operas were not intended to be performed together, but the double bill has become so common that Cav/Pag has taken on a life of its own. The Metropolitan Opera—then in its 10th season—first presented the pair as a double-bill in 1893, the year after Pagliacci premiered in Italy. The length of each opera is about 75 minutes, so pairing them makes for one full night of opera. Additionally, both are masterful examples of verismo (Italian for verisimilitude, that is, ‘realistic’ or ‘believable’). These operas focus not on the gods, mythic figures or royalty, but on the problems and pitfalls of common people. The style is also associated with Puccini; but Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are its Old and New Testaments. 

 Scenes from Seattle Opera's last Pagliacci production in 2008 (presented without Cavalleria Rusticana). The last time the company presented a mainstage version of Cavalleria was in 1990. Photo left: Gordon Hawkins (Tonio) and Antonello Palombi (Canio); photo, right: Antonello Palombi (Canio) and Nuccia Focile (Nedda). Photos by Rozarii Lynch.

On Sept. 25, 2020, Seattle Opera premieres its Cavalleria rusticana Highlights Recital for Seattle Opera subscribers. Experience the joys and tragedies of life in a small Italian village in this online program featuring highlights from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. Many of the artists originally scheduled to perform in the August double bill are thrilled to participate in this presentation. Gregory Kunde, Sarah Larsen, Alexandra Lo Bianco,  Nerys Jones and pianist John Keene are featured singers with an introduction by Dramaturg Jonathan Dean. Learn more at

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