I know that operas are meant to be seen as much as they are meant to be heard, but many people experience opera through recordings these days in the comfort of their own homes and some operas make for better home listening than others. One opera that is perfect for home listening is Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana ('Rustic Chivalry'), a piece of which I had rather low expectations...until I heard it. It's a piece that bowled me over. Why? Well, the tunes are nearly all excellent, full of Italian passion and lyricism, and stick in the memory. The vigour of their presentation makes them even more compelling, as does Mascagni's sense of pace and his almost infallible scoring (perhaps one or two too many cymbal crashes at climaxes!).
The orchestra is a big player in the opera, sharing centre stage (for the listener) with the singers and chorus; indeed, the early stages of Cav (as it's popularly known) are something of an orchestral suite, despite the off-stage tenor and the extended chorus. The orchestra continues to contribute to the story-telling and atmosphere-creating throughout and Mascagni makes much use of recurring passages and, yes, leitmotifs.
The prelude introduces us to tunes we will thrill to later in the opera before we hear the off-stage tenor (Turiddu) singing his serenade-like Siciliano, "O Lola, bianca come fior di spino" ('O Lola, fair as a smiling flower') - which is everything that an off-stage Italian tenor aria should be! The curtain goes up on the opening crowd scene, a duet for chorus and orchestra - "Gli aranci olezzano sui verdi margini" ('Sweet is the air with the blossoms of oranges'), where the women sing a lovely tune and the men enter singing another tune before the whole is crowned with a wonderful weaving of tunes and voice types (both vocal and instrumental). After a tuneful 'duet-recitative' for Santuzza (soprano) and Mamma Lucia (contralto), Alfio (baritone) and the chorus sing a gloriously tuneful, Bizet-like number, "Il cavallo scalpita" ('Gayly moves the tramping horse'), complete with whip-cracks!
The richness of the 'Easter Hymn' scene, which features an off-stage choir (including children) and organ (the congregation inside the church), provides an atmospheric background for Santuzza and the on-stage crowd to sing the superb hymn, "Innegiamo, il Signor non e morto" ('Let us sing of the Lord now victorious') - a plum tune that is as rousing as a fine Verdi patriotic chorus. The tune lingers delightfully in the orchestra at the start of the next number, Santuzza's no-less-superb "Voi lo sapete" ('Now you shall know'), a passionate and dramatic aria that gives us two great tunes - one for the singer, one for the orchestra - and which showcases all of Mascagni's ingenuity.
The next scene turns from a duet (Turiddu and Santuzza) into a trio (with Lola (mezzo-soprano) and back again. The first duet, "Battimi, insultami, t’amo e perdono" ('Beat me, insult me, I still love and forgive you'), has a particularly gripping climax with another powerful tune driving it on. The second duet, "No, no, Turiddu, rimani, rimani, ancora-Abbandonarmi dunque tu vuoi?" (No, no, Turiddu! Remain with me now and forever! Love me again! How can you forsake me?), is the apotheosis of passion and a chance to revel again in a tune first heard in the prelude. This duet highlights the composer's love of making his voices combine in unison for the climactic phrases and for following dramatic pauses with sweetness. It may not be overly subtle but it is emotionally highly satisfying.
The short but dramatic scene between Santuzza and Alfio combines punchy recitative with a melodically-fine duet. Harmonically this opera is rarely found far from the expected but is always successful in its effect, as in this scene.
What follows is the famous Intermezzo, which opens with beautiful high string writing (with shades of Lohengrin), soon joined by a solo flute, before launching a warm, middle-register tune (a tune of very high quality) to harp accompaniment.
Like the opera itself, I shall now move swiftly to the denouement. A charming chorus is swiftly followed by Turiddu's drinking song, "Viva, I vivo spumeggiante" ('Hail! The ruby wine now flowing'). Why do drinking songs so often bring out the best in composers? The scene between the rutting stages (Turiddu and Alfio) is musically the least interesting but the magical theme on high tremolo strings that start's Turiddu's "Mamma, quel vino e generoso" returns us to the heights of pleasure. This aria is splendid, with a great soaring theme at its heart. The sensational ending of the opera does what opera can do best - send shivers down your spine. It works.
Cavalleria Rusticana is an almost completely inspired opera - something you can't say about most operas! What a joy!
The plot can be read here.