Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci and their Composers

Pietro Mascagni was a relatively young man of 27 when Cavalleria rusticana premiered at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Mascagni came from humble origins, his father was a baker, and he went against his family’s wishes in order to pursue his desire to be a composer. With help from a local nobleman in Livorno, his home town, he went to the Milan Conservatory where he was a student with Ponchielli (the composer of La gioconda) and was a roommate living the bohemian student life with Giacomo Puccini. But he didn’t last long at the conservatory. His spirit rebelled against any kind of formal or structured compositional training, and in 1885 he left Milan and began to tour with various small opera companies, acting both as a kind of resident composer and arranger, as well as a conductor. He finally landed in Cerignola in the region of Apulia in 1886, making his living as a music teacher.

Things remained relatively quiet for Mascagni until the publishing firm of Sonzogno announced its second opera competition in 1889 (the competition was established in 1883). The Sonzogno Competition was a great prize for a young composer because it came not only with publication, but with an assured production of the work. The young Mascagni felt that he was ready to enter the competition and put everything aside in order to prepare an opera for it. There were 72 other applicants. Using Verga’s scena popolare Cavalleria rusticana, which he had seen with Duse in the key role of Santuzza in Milan, he entered the competition and won. With the overwhelming success of the opera the firm of Sonzogno began to collect composers and works which reflected the new veristic style, publishing Pagliacci (Leoncavallo), Andrea Chénier and Fedora (Giordano), L’amico Fritz (Mascagni) and La Gioconda (Ponchielli).

Mascagni, although he wrote a number of noteworthy operas, like Isabeau, Iris and L’amico Fritz, never had another success that was quite the equal of Cavalleria rusticana. He spent much of his life as an academician (director of the Liceo Musicale in Pesaro) and as a conductor of some renown. The much vaunted production of his final opera Nerone at La Scala in 1935 was concocted by the ruling Fascist government as a volley against modernism and the composer’s connection with the Mussolini regime clouded his reputation after his death in Rome in 1945.

Ruggero Leoncavallo was born to a magistrate in Naples and had a relatively well-off childhood. He attended the Naples Conservatory where he excelled in piano and composition and later continued his work at the Bologna University, the oldest university in Europe. He never finished his degree, traveling to Egypt to seek his fortune on the advice of an uncle in the foreign service. After that he returned to Europe, residing in Paris for a time, to act as a pianist and music teacher. He came under the influence of Wagner for a time, even plotting a Ring-like trilogy of operas that would be performed over successive nights (Crepusculum, begun in 1882). Through the intercession of Victor Maurel, the great baritone who first sang the roles of Falstaff and Iago, he got a commission from Giulio Ricordi to complete his trilogy for that great publishing house, but it came to naught. He eventually returned to Milan where he jumped into the musical life of the city, even aiding Puccini in the development of the libretto for Manon Lescaut.

Leoncavallo’s real break came with the overwhelming success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana in 1890, an event which spurred his interest in writing a similar short work with a realistic and violent story at its core. He chose to write about something that happened in a town close to Naples when he was a child, an onstage murder of a wife by her jealous actor-husband. The case was brought before his magistrate father, from whom he undoubtedly received the story. But stories of jealousy with violent endings were quite the rage. Bizet’s Carmen was the most popular opera in Italy at the time, and its influence is strongly felt in these new verismo operas.

Although he had an earlier relationship with the house of Ricordi, Leoncavallo offered his idea to Sonzogno who grabbed it up enthusiastically, convinced that it would be as successful as Cavalleria had been. And, in fact, that is exactly what happened. At the premiere in Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme, Pagliacci was wildly successful, due in no small part to the baton of the relatively new conductor, Arturo Toscanini.

An interesting side-story to Leoncavallo’s life is the tussle between himself and Puccini over their attempts to bring Mürger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème to the opera stage. Evidently Leoncavallo had the idea first and was well into the composition of his La bohème when he met Puccini in a Milan café and heard that he had begun work on the same property. Leoncavallo accused Puccini of stealing the idea, convinced that he had mentioned it to Puccini previously. Puccini claimed innocence, but the argument thus begun was taken up in the Milanese press. Leoncavallo’s work, although it has much to recommend it (and was performed first!), ultimately does not have the spirit and fleetness of the Puccini. And although Leoncavallo’s La bohème was better received initially by audiences and critics alike, it was Puccini’s effort that eventually became established in the international repertory. Leoncavallo spent the rest of his years writing lighter fare, operettas of faint imagination and originality that did little to further his reputation as a serious composer of opera.

The Sources of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci

The literary source of the works of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Montemezzi, Zandonai, Giordano, Cilea and Ponchielli is relatively easy to locate. It is the movement that appeared originally in France stimulated by the works of such novelists as Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola. It was called naturalisme, naturalism, and it was an attempt to look at the world with a cold, objective eye watching human beings act and react within the society in which they found themselves. Naturalistic works emphasized the dark side of human life, the harshness of it, and in 19th century France, particularly among the so-called lower social classes, there was much to report that was violent, deadly and pessimistic. (See Thérèse Raquin in Operapaedia for short discussions of the Zola novel upon which Tobias Picker based his opera). The naturalist authors attempted to realistically portray this period of profound change, of political as well as industrial revolutions that caught so many people in Europe off guard and created an intense feeling of insecurity and disenfranchisement, especially among the poor.

The naturalistic movement was extremely influential in the literature of other countries, especially Italy where the style was called verismo or realism. It affected Italian literature, theatre and opera in the late nineteenth century, and became a stylistic tendency that lasted well into the twentieth century. After the success of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci audiences were demanding more ‘realistic’ stories in opera and begging to see more works that dealt with real people in real situations particularly in the small towns and villages of Southern Italy where life was hard.

The most important examples of verismo in Italian literature come from the works of Giovanni Verga. It was his short story Cavalleria rusticana or ‘Rustic chivalry’, based on an actual event that took place in the Sicilian countryside, that three composers, Mascagni, Gastaldon and Monleone set as operas. The story was originally a part of Verga’s novel I Malavoglia but was eventually published separately. It was so powerful that the great 19th century actress Eleanora Duse asked Verga to dramatize it so that she could play the principal female role.

Puccini came close to writing an opera based on a Verga subject, La lupa or The Wolf. The source was recommended to the composer by his publisher Giulio Ricordi and Puccini had great enthusiasm for it at first, even traveling south to Catania to meet with the author. But, as was often the case in Puccini’s search for subjects, he soon lost his excitement for the story and used some of the music that he’d composed for La lupa in his masterpiece, La bohème. There is some discussion amongst opera-lovers and even music scholars about whether Puccini’s Tosca could be considered a verismo work. It certainly has elements of the style: melodramatic declamation, violence onstage, detailed musical descriptions of torture, an ironic switch at the end. But the characters are all aristocrats, definitely not from the lower social classes that populate the best of the verismo works.

The Music of Cavalleria rusticana & Pagliacci

Leoncavallo was a more thorough craftsman and composer than Mascagni was and you can see that and hear it in these two works. Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, therefore, is more through-composed and more highly developed than Cavalleria. Despite the fact that they’ve been paired together for 75 years, and that they’re both by Italian composers from the same era, they are significantly different in their sheer musicalapproach.

When you look at Cavalleria rusticana analytically, it is nothing more than a series of set-pieces or ‘numbers’ strung together to tell a story. Since it all takes place during a Sicilian Easter celebration within one day’s time in a rustic little village, there are numerous opportunities for musical expression that come naturally from environment within which the opera is set. So first there is a Prelude played by the orchestra which is soon interrupted by a romanza sung by Turiddu offstage, a serenade in Neopolitan style to his beloved Lola. The prelude continues, ends, and then we are immediately thrust into a village scene introduced by church bells accompanying the villagers coming out of the church on Easter morning. Then there’s a short duet between Santuzza and Mamma Lucia follows, Santuzza asking Lucia where her son Turiddu is, then an entrance song for Alfio, Lola’s husband, (folk-like in style), then more set pieces…a ‘Regina Coeli, a sacred hymn stemming from inside the church, and then the people’s Easter prayer and procession. One standard operatic vignette or ‘number’ is offered after another until we have the great confrontation between Turiddu and Santuzza, a wonderful duet that is truly the heart of the opera. There is little or no sharing of melodic ideas from one vignette to another and no real development of themes, simply their reappearance. In a way, Mascagni’s approach to the music is simple and very direct, much like the life of these Sicilian villagers.

Leoncavallo approaches his opera in a different way. It’s much more influenced by the late operas of Verdi, especially Otello and Falstaff, and Wagner, an early influence, in which the composer approaches opera not so much in terms of individual ‘numbers’ but as an ever dynamic, ever developing whole. Other than Tonio’s prologue, Nedda’s aria (“Stridono lassù”) and Canio’s lament (“Vesti la giubba”) there are no numbers or set pieces in this opera. It moves dynamically from beginning to end with melodic ideas constantly changing, reappearing and developing. This kind of technique, where a composer takes a melody and continually develops it to become a part of the fabric of the whole piece, is not something that came naturally to Mascagni and has little part to play in Cavalleria rusticana. It should not surprise anyone that the approach of these two composers is so essentially different and yet the two works are consistently paired together. That’s because the elements of verismo are not so much about the style of the music as they are about the style of the librettos, the stories of these operas… popular, full-blooded, passionate works about people living a hand-to-mouth existence at the lower levels of society.

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