Mascagni: Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana


FOR me, this is one of the great melodies, haunting and beautiful. It will remind others of films with a theme of violence. Whether classical music should be linked with less elevated subjects (such as Nessun Dorma and World Cup football) is not for me to say – maybe it brings wonderful music to the attention of some who would otherwise remain unaware of it, maybe the music is ruined for others.

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) was born in Livorno, Italy, and attended the Milan Conservatory. However he was dismissed in 1884, aged 21, for his lack of application. He then endured six years of poverty and obscurity touring as a conductor, then teaching and conducting in Cerignola, Puglia.

Here, in 1889, he heard of a competition sponsored by the music publisher Edoardo Sonzogno offering a prize for the best one-act opera written by a young Italian composer who had not yet had an opera performed. The competition had been announced the year before and 26-year-old Mascagni heard about it only two months before the closing date.

For his story he chose Cavalleria Rusticana (‘Rustic Chivalry’), a passionate love tragedy that takes place on Easter morning by the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga, which the author had already adapted into a play Mascagni had admired in Milan.

He asked his childhood friend Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, a poet and professor of literature, to provide a libretto. Time was of the essence so Targioni-Tozzetti and his colleague Guido Menasci immediately set to work, sending the lines to Mascagni as they went along, sometimes only a fragment on a postcard.

Mascagni recalled: ‘I received the verses a few at a time but I already had all the situation clear in my mind: I identified with the drama to such an extent that I felt it within myself in terms of music.’

It took the full two months for Mascagni to compose the score, and when the time came for him to submit it, his courage deserted him. Fearing failure, he put the music in a drawer, where it might have remained had his wife not sent it off. It arrived on the last day for acceptance of entries. In all, 73 operas were submitted, and Cavalleria Rusticana was unanimously voted the winner by the five judges.

It opened on May 17, 1890, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, starring the renowned Italian tenor Roberto Stagno and soprano Gemma Bellincioni, one of the best known opera singers of the time. The house was half empty but the audience included the country’s most authoritative music critics and the Queen consort of Italy, Queen Margherita.

The work was a success from its opening notes. After Stagno’s rendition of one of the songs, the Siciliana, the audience leaped to their feet with thunderous applause. Several numbers had to be encored. Mascagni took 40 curtain calls.

The subsequent run was sold out, and many more productions followed. It opened in London at the Shaftesbury Theatre in October 1891 and had its Covent Garden premiere on 16 May 1892.

American producers fought, sometimes in the courts, to be the first to present the opera. It was premiered in Philadelphia at the Grand Opera House on September 9, 1891. In New York two rival productions opened on the same day, October 1, 1891.

At the age of 27, the struggling composer became wealthy and famous overnight. Medals were struck in Mascagni’s honour; Livorno welcomed him home as a hero; the King of Italy bestowed on him the Order of the Crown of Italy – an honour even Verdi wasn’t given until middle age.

Mascagni wrote and produced 15 other operas but none came close to the spectacular success of Cavalleria Rusticana. At the end of his life he said: ‘It is a pity I wrote Cavalleria first for I was crowned before I became king.’

Here is a performance by the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan.

And here is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 film of the complete opera.

Those of you who prefer not to associate music with other genres should look away now.

Here are the opening titles of the 1980 film Raging Bull, directed by Martin Scorsese.

Since Robert De Niro is just about my favourite actor, I am indulging myself with the 1981 Oscars ceremony. Look at the calibre of the actors vying for Best Actor award: De Niro, Robert Duval (another favourite, and The Great Santini was a terrific film), John Hurt, Jack Lemmon, Peter O’Toole.

The Intermezzo also features at the end of The Godfather Part III (1990) directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

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