By Justino Gordón-LeChevalié
Who: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and St. Louis Symphony Chorus with a cast of all-star operatic vocalists
When: November 11-12, 2023
Where: Stifel Theatre
What: Passion, jealousy, and murder - Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana has all the intensity and drama of a classic Italian opera wrapped up in just one act. Though lesser known than other famous operas like La Traviata or Carmen, this 1890 work packs a visceral punch. Based on a short story and set in 19th century Sicily, Cavalleria Rusticana combines a tragic love triangle plot with gorgeous and familiar melodies.
Cavalleria rusticana was originally written by Mascagni for a competition to find one-act operas by emerging Italian composers in 1890. Up against 72 other entrants, the 27-year-old and relatively unknown Mascagni won the competition with his submission. The opera premiered in Rome later that year to great acclaim, propelling Mascagni to fame and establishing Cavalleria rusticana as a masterpiece of the *verismo movement in Italian opera, which aimed to bring *real-life drama and emotion to the stage.
Baritone Alan Freed, another long-time member of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus (SLSC), likens the opera to a "soap opera," with its timeless and relatable themes of doubt, betrayal, and hate. These are just some of the elements that make Cavalleria rusticana not just an opera but a powerful drama that can easily resonate with the emotional experiences of its audiences.
The story follows Santuzza, a young woman who had been seduced and then abandoned by Turiddu before he left to become a soldier. When Turiddu returns, he ignores Santuzza and rekindles his old romance with Lola, a married woman. In retaliation, Santuzza publicly reveals Turiddu's affair with Lola to Alfio, Lola's husband. This ignites a feud between Turiddu and Alfio, as defending Lola's honor has become a matter of obligation. In the end, Turiddu is killed in his duel with Alfio.
But what about the music itself?
"The chorus is a member of the cast in this opera in concert. We have to make shifts as though we are leads," said Leon Burke III, a bass with the SLSC since 1995. This highlights the dynamic and integral role the chorus plays in driving the narrative forward. Acting as both greek chorus—foreshadowing information to the audience before the characters are aware—and villagers within the story, the chorus is seen and heard throughout the entire performance.
And the music's familiarity will definitely spark an interest with audiences, as Burke adds, “People will say, ‘Oh, that’s where that comes from.’”
For those new to the piece, tenor Jimmy Stevens, who joined the chorus in 2022, promises an action-packed experience:
“This is some of the most action-packed music you’re going to hear in 80 minutes.”
Indeed, the opera's tight narrative structure delivers a declarative and succinct punch, ensuring that audiences are riveted from start to finish.
This opera stands as a testament to the power of storytelling through music. Its place in history is significant, and its impact on audiences is memorable. As the SLSC members have expressed, there's an infectious excitement about bringing this opera to life in concert. Whether you're a seasoned opera aficionado or a curious newcomer, this is a piece that promises not only to entertain but to also leave a lasting impression of the raw and emotional power of operatic music.
The concerts on November 11-12 at Stifel Theatre are the first times SLSO has ever performed Cavalleria rusticana, so be sure to get your tickets today and experience the magic of opera in concert.
For even more information about Cavalleria rusticana, be sure to see our program notes here.
Justino Gordón-LeChevalié is the Communications and Publications Coordinator for the SLSO