Opera North Blog

Cavalleria rusticana in a nutshell


​Everything you need to know about Cavalleria rusticana in one place – right here!

What is the story?

Turiddu has returned from military service to find his fiancée Lola married to another man, Alfio. In revenge, he has seduced a girl from the village, Santuzza, but the jealous Lola has since stolen him back, and she and Turiddu are conducting an affair…

This powder keg of passions ignites on Easter Sunday, as Santuzza, driven by despair and revenge, finally betrays Turiddu’s and Lola’s affair to Alfio – a terrible mistake, as it seals the fate of the man she worships.

Part of our season of short operas with huge emotions, this passionate drama reaches the extremes of human feeling and will keep you on the edge of your seat!

Who are the characters?

Santuzza, seduced by Turiddu (soprano)
Turiddu, seducer of Santuzza, having affair with Lola (tenor)
Lola, wife of Alfio, having affair with Turiddu (mezzo-soprano)
Alfio, husband of Lola (baritone)
Lucia, mother of Turiddu (mezzo-soprano)

The chorus is also hugely prominent in this piece as the community, united by hardship and by religion but divided by intrigue and underlying tensions…

What is the music like?

Cavalleria rusticana contains some of opera’s most stirring melodies and is highly emotional from the start. 

Highlights include the Easter Hymn (a chorus over which a solo soprano line soars, rising higher and higher), which expresses Santuzza’s sincerity and deep religious devotion, made more poignant by her separation from the others due to her belief in her own unworthiness. Hear it below performed by our own cast, chorus and orchestra. In contrast, Turiddu’s lively drinking song ‘Viva il vino spuggiante’ (‘Here’s to the sparkling wine’) shows his reckless, devil-may-care attitude – evidence of Mascagni’s vivid musical portrait painting.

The most famous extract of all has to be the beautiful orchestral Intermezzo (interlude), which you’re sure to recognise. Though often featured in classical compilations of ‘romantic music’, the Intermezzo in context marks the passage of time as the Easter service takes place (you can even hear an organ in the midst of the orchestral sound), and comes at a time of great despair and tension in the story, as we await the opera’s inevitably fatal conclusion… 

What is this staging like?

Karolina Sofulak’s new production of Cavalleria rusticana is set closer to our current time than the original 19th-century Sicily, but in a place facing similar economic depression, the same loss of trust in the state, and equally in the iron grip of the Catholic Church: communist Poland c. 1975. 
There are recognisable images of communism within the staging, such as long queues at Mamma Lucia’s shop, its shelves empty but for vinegar bottles, and Alfio as a taxi driver, the ‘big achiever’ with the village’s one and only car – a tiny Fiat (see below). In Santuzza we see escapism from harsh reality into religion to the point of madness, which prompts her to envision herself as a Mary Magdalene figure, with Turiddu her Christ. 

Who was the composer?

Cavalleria rusticana was written by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), contemporary and friend of Giacomo Puccini (La bohème, Tosca) and Pagliacci’s composer Ruggero Leoncavallo.

Mascagni had been unknown when he entered a competition devised by influential music publisher Eduordo Sonzongo for young Italian composers in 1888. Entrants were to submit a one-act opera, and the best three would be staged, at the publisher’s expense. Cavalleria rusticana won, earning Mascagni instant fame, but it seems his career peaked too soon and he never again achieved the same success. As the composer himself said “It was a pity I wrote Cavalleria first, for I was crowned before I was king”.

Today, Cavalleria rusticana is most often performed in a double bill with fellow one-act opera Pagliacci. This season, see Pag and Cav together in a double bill on tour, or each piece individually in Leeds with another of our Little Greats operas.

Did you know?

  • Mascagni learned about Sonzongo’s competition just two months before the closing date. Such was the hurry to get his entry together that Mascagni’s librettists had to send him their text in fragments – sometimes on the back of a postcard! From your librettists, with love…
  • Apparently, when the time came to submit the score, Mascagni got cold feet and put the music in a drawer! Thankfully his wife intervened and sent it off, and just made the competition’s deadline.
  • After the opera’s sensational premiere in 1890, Cav fever spread like wildfire, reaching across Europe and America (whose opera houses took to the courts in their struggle to be the first to present it) within a year and a half. By the time Mascagni died in 1945, his opera had been performed 14,000 times in his home country alone. 
  • Cavalleria rusticana was a trend setter in many ways – it was the piece that kick started the verismo (from vero = truth) movement in opera, characterized by realistic, gritty depictions of everyday life, starring everyday people. 

Cavalleria rusticana is sung in Italian with English titles, and lasts approximately 1 hour 15 minutes. For more info or to book tickets, visit the Cavalleria rusticana webpage. Join in on social media with #ONCavalleria and #LittleGreats.

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North.

Cavalleria rusticana, 2017. Credit: Robert Workman 
Scene from
Cavalleria rusticana's premiere, 1890
Pietro Mascagni

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