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ClassicsOnline Home » MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni / La Scala) (1940)
By John Steane
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945): Cavalleria Rusticana
There is no doubt that Pietro Mascagnis reputation rests primarily on Cavalleria rusticana, a pioneering example of verismo, realism, in Italian opera. Born in 1863 in Livorno, the son of a baker, through the intervention of a rich patron he was able to study at Milan Conservatory as a pupil of Ponchielli, sharing rooms with Puccini, five years his senior, but soon left to embark on a career as a composer and conductor. In 1885 he had his operetta Il re a Napoli (The King in Naples) staged by a provincial touring company, but his great success came with triumph in the 1888 one-act opera competition of the publisher Sonzogno and the staging of his award-winning Cavalleria rusticana in Rome in 1890. He followed this in 1891 with Lamico Fritz, a gentle comedy in a pastoral setting, but in contrast to the preceding work. The Intermezzo is included in the present release, together with the overture to I Rantzau, also set in Alsace and successfully mounted in Florence in 1892. The Intermezzo from Mascagnis operatic version of Heines, Guglielmo Ratcliff, a Scottish tragedy of murder and revenge, is followed by two excerpts from the exotic Iris of 1898, a forerunner, in its Japanese setting, of Puccinis Madama Butterfly. From Iris comes the evocative introductory Hymn to the Sun and dances. Le maschere, staged in simultaneously in seven Italian cities in 1901, was a generally unsuccessful attempt at revival of elements of the commedia dellarte. Mascagni continued to search for inspiration in new subjects and completed his last opera, the tragedy Nerone, in 1934. This was staged at La Scala the following year, with the support of the government, with whose policies the new work, a reaction against current modernism, and the composer were in agreement. Mascagni remained the symbol of a particular cultural epoch until his death in 1945.
On the departure of Toscanini from La Scala, an expression of his disagreement with the policies of Mussolini, Mascagni assumed duties there and a continuing connection with the now ruling party. The fiftieth anniversary of the first staging of Cavalleria rusticana was the occasion of particular celebration, represented by the present recording under the composers direction. The work is based on an 1883 play by the Sicilian-born writer Giovanni Verga, a drama translated, among other writings of Verga, by D.H.Lawrence.
In the anniversary performance the rôle of Turiddu was taken by a singer generally seen as the heir to Caruso, Beniamino Gigli. Born at Recanati, the son of a shoemaker, he had made his operatic début in 1914 at Rovigo in La Gioconda. He made his first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1920 as Faust in Boitos opera Mefistofele, now established in an international career, while at home he enjoyed the particular favour of Mussolini. After the war he was able to re-establish his international career with triumphant appearances throughout the world, until his retirement in 1956, the year before his death. He is partnered by Lina Bruna Rasa, a soprano who had made her operatic début at Genoa as Helen of Troy in Boitos Mefistofele and been engaged by Toscanini for La Scala, where she continued to appear during the following decade. She appeared in Mascagnis Nerone in 1935 and had an international career with particular success in verismo repertoire. The Italian baritone Gino Bechi sings Alfio. He had made his operatic début at Empoli four years earlier, when he sang Germont in La Bohème. He was associated with La Scala from 1939 to 1953, establishing himself as a leading dramatic baritone. He retired in 1961. Mamma Lucia is sung by the mezzo-soprano Giuletta Simionato, who had made her first appearance at La Scala a year earlier as Beppe in Lamico Fritz. She continued her association with La Scala and in an international career until her retirement in 1966.
 Mascagnis Introductory Speech
Dear listeners, I am Pietro Mascagni and I am talking to you to tell you that my Cavalleria rusticana is now fifty years old and because of my memories and the many kind messages I have received, I have not been able to resist the invitation of the distinguished company His Masters Voice and have decided to present the opera in a complete recording for the first time under my personal direction. My creation, which is brought to life by the most celebrated singers and by orchestral and choral forces that have no rival in the world, will remain a much better image of me than a signed photograph. And I, who have signed so many autographs, have never provided one more gladly, because it is the most vivid and one that can represent better than anything the dual nature of my career, as a composer and as a conductor of my music. I salute you cordially, before raising my baton.
 The Prelude presents three melodies that have later importance in the opera. After the opening, suggesting the church, themes associated with Santuzzas pleas to Turiddu are heard.
 The introduction to the opera continues with the sound of Turiddu, with a harp accompaniment, daring to sing of his love for Lola, even if it brings his death.
 The curtain rises to reveal a village square in Sicily. To the right, in the background, is a church, and to the left the inn and house of Mamma Lucia. It is Easter morning and the church bells are heard. As the day dawns, people gather, the church doors open and they enter. The voices of the women are heard welcoming the orange-blossom and the coming of spring. They are joined with those of the men, now resting from their labour in the fields.
 The square is now empty and Santuzza comes in, approaching the house of Mamma Lucia, calling to her to find out where her son Turiddu is. Mamma Lucia is unwilling to tell her, but Santuzza begs her. Lucia tells her that he has gone to fetch wine from Francofonte, but Santuzza says that someone saw him in the village the night before. Lucia invites her in, but Santuzza refuses, since she is an outcast, a sinner. Lucia asks if her son Turiddu is in any trouble, but Santuzza does not like to tell her what she knows.
 The sound of the crack of a whip is heard and of carriage bells, as Alfio, the village carter, appears, happily praising his work, and joined now by a group of men who echo his sentiments. He goes on to celebrate the beauty of his faithful wife, Lola, who loves him and is faithful to him. The women enter, joining in Alfios joyful song.
 The people disperse, some going into the church and others leaving in different directions. Mamma Lucia compliments Alfio on his happy temperament. He asks her if she has yet received the wine she was expecting, and she tells him that Turiddu has not yet returned. Alfio, however, had seen Turiddu early in the morning in the village, near his own house. Santuzza interrupts to prevent Lucia saying more, while Alfio leaves to prepare himself for church, from which voices are now heard singing the Regina coeli, while others, outside the church, busy themselves with their own devotions. They are joined by Santuzza and Lucia. Finally those who are still outside in the square go into the church, leaving Santuzza and Lucia alone. Lucia asks Santuzza why she told her to be silent.
 Santuzza tells Lucia of the situation, how Turiddu was in love only with Lola, before he went to be a soldier and how, when he returned, Lola was married to Alfio. Turiddu had then turned to her for consolation and she returned his love. This excited Lolas jealousy and she stole Turiddus affections, leaving Santuzza alone and desolate. She asks for Lucias prayers in her effort to persuade Turiddu to return to her.
 Lucia goes into the church, as Turiddu returns, surprised to see Santuzza waiting for him and unwilling to talk to her. Santuzza asks him where he has been and he tells her he has been to Francoforte, but she accuses him of lying, since Alfio saw him near his own house early in the morning. Santuzza pleads with him, since Lola has lured him away from her with her scheming. He tells her that her jealousy is groundless, but she insists that, whatever happens, she will love him.
 They break off, as Lolas voice is heard, singing a little song in praise of an iris, more beautiful than the angels in heaven. She comes into the square and suddenly stops, asking Turiddu if he has seen Alfio and if he and Santuzza are having a service of their own in the square. Santuzza tells her, pointedly, that God sees everything and only those free from sin should go to Mass. Lola is confident of her fitness and leaves Santuzza and Turiddu alone again.
 Turiddu is angry, but Santuzza continues to plead with him, begging him not to abandon her. He will not listen and declares he will never forgive her. She threatens him and in fury he throws her down to the ground and goes into the church. Santuzza curses him in her anguish.
 She is joined by Alfio, happily unaware of the situation. Santuzza tells him that Mass is nearly over and that Lola is in the church with Turiddu. She goes on to reveal that, while he has been working, Lola has been with Turiddu, who had betrayed her. Alfio threatens her, if she is lying, but Santuzza assures him that she is telling the truth. Alfio swears to be revenged, his love for Lola turned to hate. As they go out, Santuzza continues to express remorse for what she has done, while Alfio seeks vengeance.
 The orchestral Intermezzo summarises what has gone before and suggests what is to come.
 The people leave the church and Lucia goes into her inn. Men greet each other, and the women do the same, ready to enjoy a day of rest from work. Lola and Turiddu come out of the church together. He asks her not to go away without a greeting, but she tells him that she is going home to find her husband. He calls to his fellow villagers to join him in drinking, and they all gather outside the inn.
 Turiddu sings a drinking-song and toasts Lola and her admirers, as they all join together in celebration, finally interrupted by the arrival of Alfio.
 Alfio greets the company and Turiddu invites him to join them, but Alfio refuses the proffered beaker, which would be poison to him. Turiddu empties the beaker on the ground, while Lola is persuaded by the other women to leave the men alone, and they go. Turiddu asks if Alfio has anything to say to him, but Alfio says there is nothing to say. Turiddu awaits Alfios invitation, and Alfio suggests an immediate meeting. They embrace and Turiddu bites Alfios right ear, a sign that the challenge is accepted. Turiddu, however, has regrets, for if he dies, Santuzza will be left alone, but he will triumph. Alfio cuts short his talk and tells him that he will wait for him behind the orchard.
 Turiddu calls to his mother and when she comes out, he tells her that he has drunk too much and will take a walk in the open air. First, though, he seeks her blessing and asks her, if he should not return, to look after Santuzza, as if she were her own daughter. Lucia asks him what he means, but he makes his drinking the excuse, still seeking her prayers and a kiss, before he goes. He runs out, and Lucia calls after him. Santuzza enters, to be embraced by Mamma Lucia. She is followed by villagers, anxious and agitated, until a cry is heard from the distance, announcing the death of Turiddu. Women come in, in fear, while Santuzza swoons and Lucia also faints, supported by the other women, as the curtain falls.