Pietro Mascagni (1863–1945)
(from Cavalleria Rusticana, 1890)
“It was a pity I wrote Cavalleria first. I was crowned before I was king.”
— Pietro Mascagni
“Mascagni was politically naive and personally obtuse. He used the [Mussolini] regime and allowed himself to be used by it, always thinking he had the upper hand and never with any regard for the consequences.”
— Buoso Donati
Mascagni and Mussolini
As Bizet with Carmen and Leoncavallo with Pagliacci, Pietro Mascagni is often considered a one-opera composer. He wrote 15 operas, but his first, Cavalleria Rusticana, is the only one that is still frequently performed in the opera world. (Two others, L’amico Fritz and Iris, are performed from time to time in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.)
There is no denying that Cavalleria Rusticana was a stunning, unexpected, and legitimate success. Mascagni wrote it for a one-act competition announced by the publisher Casa Sonzogno, finishing it on May 27, 1889, and sending it off to Milan. There were 73 submissions; Cavalleria won. He was summoned to Rome to assist with the production, which opened May 17, 1890, at Teatro Costanzi. Mascagni took 40 curtain calls. Performances followed in Florence, Turin, Bologna, Palermo, Milan, Genoa, Naples, Venice, and Trieste. Gustav Mahler conducted it in Budapest. It reached Munich, Hamburg, St. Petersburg, Dresden, and Buenos Aires, and in March 1891, it opened in Vienna. Mascagni was 26.
Cavalleria Rusticana is also regarded as the foundation of the verismo school of Italian opera, an outgrowth of an international literary movement toward greater realism and truthful depiction. The lives of ordinary men and women supplanted gods, royalty, and mythological figures. The libretto is based on a short story and a play, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” by Giovanni Verga. Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a work in the verismo style, premiered within two years.
Mascagni continued to compose, held a number of administrative positions in schools and conservatories, toured internationally (his Isabeau had its premiere in Buenos Aires), and kept a full schedule as a conductor of his own works and those of others. He conducted Verdi’s Messa da Requiem after the master’s death, and conducted a performance of La Bohème as a tribute to Puccini, who died in 1924. He experimented with new media, composing music for Nino Oxilia’s silent film Rapsodia Satanica, a move critics thought beneath him. (The Musical Times of October 1917 quoted critic Guido Malcangi: “The cinematograph is to the theater what the newspaper is to the book.”)
In the 1930s, Mascagni and other Italian composers joined the PNF, the fascist party of Mussolini, a step often viewed as opportunistic on his part. He remained a high-profile figure. In 1940, there were 50th anniversary performances of Cavalleria Rusticana throughout Italy, some of them conducted by Mascagni himself.
Easter Hymn (from Cavalleria Rusticana)
First performance: May 17, 1890, at Teatro Costanzi, Rome; Libretto: Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci
It is Easter morning in a 19th-century Sicilian village. There is a backstory: A young villager named Turiddu had returned from military service. While he was away, his fiancée Lola married a teamster named Alfio. Turiddu is now seeing a young woman named Santuzza. Lola, his former fiancée is consumed with jealousy and has seduced Turiddo.
The opera opens on a beautiful song-filled spring day, but all is not well. Santuzza suspects Turiddu of an adulterous affair with Lola and goes to seek him out. Some say Turridu has gone to the next village to buy wine (his mother, Lucia, runa a wine shop). Others, including Alfio, say no, he has been seen in the village this morning. Alfio departs.
A chorus inside the church is singing the Regina Caeli as a chorus of villagers in the square is singing the Easter Hymn. Santuzza and Lucia continue to talk, and Santuzza tells her about her own seduction by Turiddu and his current affair with Lola. The villagers are entering the church. Turiddu arrives, and Santuzza scolds him for having pretended to be out of town. Lola passes by on her way to church, sees them, and mocks Santuzza. Turiddu pushes Xantuzza away and follows Lola into the church. Alfio arrives, and Santuzza lets him know what has been happening. He swears revenge.
The calm of an sunlit empty town square lasts only so long after church is out. The villagers are in Laura’s wine shop. Alfio arrives, and trouble is in the air. He challenges Turiddu to a duel, which Turiddu accepts by biting Alfio’s ear, an old Sicilian sign that the duel will be to the death. Alfio leaves. Turridu says his goodbys and leaves quickly. Lucia weeps; Santuzza hugs her. As the villagers crowd around them, Santuzza and Laura hear voices in the distance: Turridu is dead. They collapse in the arms of the town women.
Regina coeli laetare. Alleluja!
Quia quem meruisti portare. Alleluja!
Resurrexit sicut dixit. Alleluja!
Santuzzi, Lucia, Coro
Inneggiamo, il Signor non è morto.
Ei fulgente ha dischiuso l’avel.
Inneggiamo al Signore risorto —
oggi asceso alla gloria del Ciel!
Chorus (inside the church)
Queen of Heaven, rejoice. Alleluia!
The Son whom you merited to bear, Alleluia,
has risen, as He said. Alleluia!
Santuzzi, Lucia, and Chorus (in the square)
Let us rejoice that our Lord is not dead,
and in glory has opened the tomb!
Let us rejoice that Our Lord is risen again
and today is gone up into the glory of Heaven!