November 11-12, 2023
James Gaffigan, conductor
Heidi Melton, soprano (Santuzza)
Antonio Poli, tenor (Turiddu)
Meredith Arwady, contralto (Lucia)
Anthony Clark Evans, baritone (Alfio)
Katherine Beck, mezzo-soprano (Lola)
St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Andrew Whitfield, guest chorus director
Cavalleria rusticana (first SLSO performance)
There will be no Intermission
Born 1863 in Livorno, Italy
Died 1945 in Rome, Italy
Although he wrote more than a dozen other stage works, Pietro Mascagni is almost entirely known for his first opera, Cavalleria rusticana. It would be reductive to call him a one-hit wonder, but even so—what a hit, what a wonder. Cavalleria rusticana is musically gorgeous, dramatically gripping, and slyly inventive, as well as historically significant. “It was like a door that suddenly blew open onto a sealed room. A fresh, cool wind from the country blew away the faint smell of mildew,” remembered one Italian critic. “The public, which was the people, heard their voice in it and were overwhelmed.”
Mascagni’s life makes for a great rags-to-riches story. He was born in Livorno, Tuscany, the son of a baker. In 1883 he entered the Milan Conservatory where he was roommates with a young Giacomo Puccini, but dropped out two years later to become an itinerant conductor. By 1886—newly wed and with a baby on the way—he had settled in Cerignola, a rustic town in Apulia, far to the south, where he was hired to teach piano and revive the municipal orchestra, teaching every instrument to whoever wanted to play. “Cerignola is a bit primitive, but they like me a lot,” he wrote to his father.
An advertisement in a musical periodical in 1888 would elevate Mascagni from this provincial obscurity. The publisher Edoardo Sonzogno was sponsoring a contest for “an opera in one act—in one or two scenes—on an idyllic, serious, or comic subject of the competitor’s choice.” Italian opera was big business, and Sonzogno was scouting for new talent. Three finalists would receive a performance in Rome, and the first prize would be awarded 3,000 lire—something like $100,000 today. The deadline was just 11 months away.
Mascagni enlisted Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, a poet and childhood friend, to write the libretto. “This contest, just possibly, could be the beginning of my good fortune,” he said in a letter. “Work as fast as you can.” Targioni-Tozzetti recruited a second writer, Guido Menasci, to hasten the pace.
They selected Cavalleria rusticana—a short story by Giovanni Verga (1840–1922) that Mascagni had seen adapted as a play in 1884—as the scenario. The Sicilian-born Verga had founded an Italian literary movement called verismo—naturalism—that portrayed lower social classes and featured unflinching, almost clinical, depictions of sexuality and violence.
Mascagni hadn’t intended to bring verismo, as a movement, from literature into opera—it was simply source material that worked for his musical and dramatic purposes at the time. But he ended up inspiring a “giovane scuola” (young school) of composers including Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, Francesco Cilea, and Puccini, who became closely identified with the style. They replaced operatic staples like kings, counts, and contrived coincidences with peasants, painters, policemen, and real-world problems. Vocally, they moved away from bel canto flights of virtuosity in favor of dramatic declamation and a more streamlined lyricism.
Targioni-Tozzetti sent Mascagni the libretto bit-by-bit through the mail, and the composer devoted long hours to it, working right up to the deadline in May 1889. According to one account, he got cold feet over submitting Cavalleria rusticana, and his wife had to sneak the score off his desk and mail it herself at the last moment. (More recent scholarship suggests he happily mailed it himself.) As he waited for news from the competition, things in Cerignola took a turn for the worse—an economic depression and a season of crop failures threatened his livelihood. “A municipality that lays off the midwife and closes the middle school to save money cannot possibly spend on a music master,” he fretted.
It must have been a relief on February 20, 1890, when he received a telegram advising he was a semi-finalist, chosen from among 72 entries. He traveled to Rome to demonstrate the opera for the competition jury, playing it on the piano and singing all the parts with help from the panelists. He made the final cut, which resulted in a premiere at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi on May 17.
The first performance played to a half-empty house, but the small audience raved about what they’d seen, and Mascagni won the competition. “Everybody cheered, in the boxes, in the hall, everyone was on their feet,” he wrote to his father. “It was a colossal success like nobody has ever seen…My position is totally changed. I’m going crazy!”
The theater quickly added 13 more performances, and soon the opera was being performed all across Italy as well as internationally, from St. Petersburg, to Budapest (conducted by Gustav Mahler), to London, to Philadelphia, to Buenos Aires. Mascagni was a celebrity, and in 1896 he left the little town of Cerignola for good.
The Story and the Music
Santuzza, a Sicilian peasant girl
Turiddu, a peasant from the same village, recently returned from the army
Lucia, Turiddu’s mother and owner of the tavern
Alfio, a wagon-driver
Lola, Alfio’s wife
Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) takes place in a village square in Sicily on Easter morning. There is a little backstory: Turiddu, a young peasant, has recently returned from the army, to find that his girlfriend, Lola, has married Alfio while he was away. On the rebound, he seduces Santuzza, another peasant girl, but resumes seeing Lola on the side.
The opera itself begins with Turiddu surreptitiously serenading Lola offstage with a lilting siciliana (“O Lola”). The song is not in standard Italian, but in the Sicilian language—an unprecedented attempt at regional authenticity in highbrow opera. (Mascagni omitted this number from his initial submission, fearing the jury wouldn’t understand the dialect and might object to off-stage singing.)
Church bells ring out, and the villagers (chorus) enter the square. Santuzza arrives in a state of agitation looking for Turiddu. Lucia tells her he’s out of town buying wine for her tavern, but Santuzza knows he was spotted in the village the night before, and her suspicions are roused.
Alfio enters the square singing cheerfully about his work and his wife Lola (“Il cavallo scalpita”). Inquiring at the tavern, he reveals that he also saw Turiddu that morning, near his own house, further alarming Santuzza. Soon the villagers enter the church singing an Easter hymn (“Inneggiamo, il Signor non è morto”), interwoven with Santuzza’s verses.
Remaining outside with Lucia, Santuzza laments Turiddu’s history with Lola, realizing that they are still lovers (“Voi lo sapete”). As a dishonored woman, she cannot attend mass, and asks Lucia to pray for her.
Turiddu finally shows up and denies everything, accusing Santuzza of foolish jealousy. Lola then strolls by on her way to church (“Fior di giaggiolo”) and the two women exchange barbs. Turiddu and Santuzza resume their argument, he rejects her, throwing her to the ground, and she curses him as a traitor.
Now Santuzza vengefully tells Alfio that Turiddu is sleeping with his wife, and Alfio declares he’ll have blood before the sun goes down. Here Mascagni inserts an orchestral Intermezzo for strings and harp—an impassioned waltz based on the Easter Hymn that has become a popular concert excerpt.
Bells ring again as the villagers file out of the church and head to the tavern (“Viva il vino”—a brindisi or drinking song). Turiddu and Alfio argue (“A voi tutti salute!” punctuated by an ominous cello solo) and Turiddu challenges him to a duel with a bite to the ear. Drunk, Turiddu asks his mother to adopt Santuzza should anything happen to him (“Mama, quel vino è generoso”). He kisses her farewell and leaves to meet Alfio in an orchard. Shortly thereafter, a villager cries out that Turiddu has been murdered, and Santuzza and Lucia crumble in grief.
Benjamin Pesetsky © 2023
First performance: May 17, 1890 in the Teatro Costanzi, Rome
First SLSO performance: These concerts
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, organ, strings
Approximate duration: 80 minutes
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.