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Cavalleria rusticana in a nutshell

Everything you need to know about this blood-soaked one-act drama.

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… 

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Giselle Allen as Santuzza and Jonathan Stoughton as Turridù in Cavalleria rusticana (2017) © Robert Workman

Who are the characters? 

Santuzza [san-TOOTS-a] — seduced by Turiddu (soprano)
Turiddu [tu-RI-ddu] — seducer of Santuzza, having affair with Lola (tenor)
Lola [LO-la] — wife of Alfio, having affair with Turiddu (mezzo-soprano)
Alfio [AL-fi-o]— husband of Lola (baritone)
Mamma Lucia [MA-mma lu-CI-a] — mother of Turiddu (mezzo-soprano)  

The chorus play members the community, united by hardship and by religion but divided by intrigue and underlying tensions.

Katie Bray as Lola and Phillip Rhodes as Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana (2017) © Robert Workman

What is this staging like? 

Karolina Sofulak’s production of Cavalleria rusticana (new in 2017) 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.  

There are recognisable images of communism, such as long queues at Mamma Lucia’s shop, the shelves of which are practically empty, and Alfio as a taxi driver, the ‘big achiever’ with the village’s one and only car – a tiny Fiat. In Santuzza we see escapism from harsh reality in religion to the point of dementia, imagining herself as a Mary Magdalene figure with Turiddu her Christ. His blood becomes the blood of the Easter sacrificial lamb in her frenzied, broken mind…

See photos 

Katie Bray as Lola, Phillip Rhodes as Alfio and Giselle Allen as Santuzza with the Chorus of Opera North in Cavalleria rusticana (2017) © Robert Workman

What is the music like?

Cavalleria rusticana contains some of opera’s most luscious, sweeping melodies and is highly emotional right from the first note. 

Highlights include the Easter Hymn (a chorus over which a solo soprano line soars, rising higher and higher), which expresses Santuzza’s religious devotion. It’s made all the more poignant by her separation from the rest, due to a belief in her own unworthiness. By contrast, Turiddu’s upbeat drinking song ‘Viva il vino spuggiante’ (‘Here’s to the sparkling wine’) shows his reckless, devil-may-care attitude to life – it’s genius musical portrait painting. 

The best-known extract, however, has to be the beautiful orchestral Intermezzo (interlude). It 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.

Where have I heard it before?

Cavalleria rusticana features in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III (1990) in fact, the final 45 minutes of the film are built on a production of the opera, taking place at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily. The tragic final scene – one of the most iconic in the history of cinema – is soundtracked by the the Intermezzo. Mascagni’s opera is now sometimes called ‘the work that invented the Mafia’!

The Intermezzo is also used for the opening sequence of Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull (1980).

Who was the composer? 

Cavalleria rusticana was written by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), contemporary and friend of Giacomo Puccini (La bohème, Tosca). 

Mascagni had been unknown when he entered a competition for young Italian composers. Entrants had to submit a one-act opera, and the best three would be staged. 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, but we’re pairing it with Rachmaninov’s Aleko in a night of high drama.

Mascagni with musicians Franchetti and Puccini c. 1885

 Did you know?

— According to one story, when the time came for him to submit the score for the competition, Mascagni got cold feet and put the music in a drawer! Thankfully his wife thought better of it and sent it off, just making the 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.   

— On the strength of Cavalleria rusticana alone, The King of Italy bestowed on Mascagni the Order of the Crown of Italy (similar to being knighted) – an honour even Verdi wasn’t given until middle age.  

— Cavalleria 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, often building to a violent eruption of some kind.  

Autographed music quotation from Cavalleria rusticana

Cavalleria rusticana is sung in Italian with English titles and lasts approximately 1 hours 15 minutes. It will be performed in a double bill with Aleko.

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