Cheat Sheet: Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci
Everything you need to know about these two short operas. Written by two different people and intended to stand on their own, the works make a brilliant pair and so are often performed together.
Pietro Mascagni was an Italian composer writing in the late 19th century. His Cavalleria Rusticana changed the face of Italian opera — pioneering an idea called verismo.
Verismo stories depict the crude passions of everyday people instead of the dramas of kings and queens and gods. Verismo works are about sex and love and jealousy and honour and violence. Already popular in theatre, Mascagni and his contemporaries took the form to the opera theatre. Their music asked performers to prioritise the emotion of the subject matter over the beauty of the sound, so instead of striving for ‘beautiful singing’, singers could sob, shout and shriek where the action asked for it.
Ruggero Leoncavallo was Mascagni’s contemporary. He wrote librettos and operas, but like Mascagni, never really matched the success of his first hit, Pagliacci.
L: Photograph of Ruggero Leoncavallo. Source: What We Hear in Music, Anne S. Faulkner, Victor Talking Machine Co., 1913 (public domain).
R: Photograph of Pietro Mascagni. Source: Bushnell, San Francisco (public domain).
In Cavalleria Rusticana, Easter Monday dawns bloody. Turiddu is found dead in the street — but who should his grieving mother blame? His spurned lover? His married mistress? Her jealous husband? As the village prepares to celebrate Easter, the unholy consequences of forbidden lusts are laid bare.
In Pagliacci, a group of performers present a comedy about a cuckolded husband and his beautiful, flirtatious wife. But life runs very close to art for this troupe. With the hunchbacked clown Tonio pulling the strings off stage, acting is suddenly a dangerous game.
Pagliacci’s ‘Vesti la giubba’ is the original hit single — a recording by Caruso sold more than a million copies in the early 1900s. It’s a beauty.
The famous orchestral Intermezzo is a highlight of Cavalleria Rusticana.
Director Damiano Michieletto cleverly intertwines the plot of both operas. He sets each story in the same rural Italian village in the 1980s, where the villagers are preparing for Easter and looking forward to a play, Pagliacci, which is coming to town. Some of the characters of Pagliacci appear in the background of Cavalleria Rusticana, and vice versa. It’s a clever device that plays on the common themes of both operas: misplaced lust, betrayed love and violent retribution.
This is a co-production between The Royal Opera House, Opera Australia, La Monnaie, Brussels, and The Göteborg Opera.
Music publisher Sonzogno had a heart for young composers. In 1888, he announced a competition, inviting composers who had never staged an opera to submit a one-act work.
Mascagni had begun writing other operas before hearing about this competition, but it was Sonzogno’s challenge that spurred him on to write his masterpiece.
The composer discovered the opportunity just two months before the deadline, and scrambled to enter.
He asked his friend Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti for a libretto, and the professor of literature chose a popular short story and play by Verga. He sent Mascagni the libretto in fragments — sometimes merely a line or two on the back of a postcard!
Mascagni finished the work just in time, but he was too nervous to send it off. His wife submitted it on the last day of the competition.
A jury selected it for performance and it opened to a half-empty house in 1890. The applause was rapturous — Mascagni took 40 curtain calls! It was a raging success. Sonzogno grasped the chance to set himself apart from the leading music publisher in Italy, Ricordi, and began seeking out other works in this popular new style.
Meanwhile, Leoncavallo saw the opportunity to capitalize on Mascagni’s success, writing his Pagliacci in a similar style and submitting it to Sonzogno. It premiered in 1892 with an all-star line-up including Arturo Toscanini conducting and Victor Maurel as Tonio. The public loved it, and it’s been a hit ever since.
Something to listen out for
- The score of Pagliacci directs the tenor singing ‘Vesti la giubba’ to sound ‘tormented’, to sing ‘violently’ and ‘with great expression’. Listen out for the way Canio sobs at the end of the aria, letting his emotion get in the way of ‘beautiful singing’. This is common among performers today, but was groundbreaking in opera at the time.
- Take note during Santuzza and Turiddu’s fraught duet in Cavalleria Rusticana of the ways Mascagni uses music to intensify the moment. The musical pitch rises, the orchestra builds, the melodic line makes huge leaps and Santuzza’s singing ends in angry shouting as Turiddu abandons her.
- Caruso’s recording of ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Pagliacci was the first record to sell 1 million copies — the original hit single!
- Leoncavallo claimed the plot of Pagliacci came from an incident in the village of his youth, but was sued by a French playwright for plagiarism. The playwright dropped the suit when he, in turn, was accused of stealing the story. (Perhaps it’s just a very human series of events.)
- Leoncavallo didn’t invent the sad clown archetype, but it is his character (Canio-as-Pagliacco) that most pop culture interpretations are referencing. He appears in The Simpsons, in Seinfeld, in Queen’s song ‘It’s a Hard Life’ and in the Marx Brother’s film A Night at the Opera.
- Mascagni was dismissed from the Milan Conservatory of Music for failing to apply himself.
The composers: Mascagni and Leoncavallo, young Italian composers writing in the late 19th century.
The music: Dramatic, emotional and evocative, their work shows off the beginnings of the verismo movement in opera.
The big hit: ‘Vesti la giubba’, the lament of a clown.
The legacy: Pagliacci gives us the archetype of the sad clown.
The setting: Originally, both operas were set in a rural Italian village in the 19th century. Michieletto updates the action to a poverty-stricken Italian village in the 1980s.
A quirky fact to impress your date: A recording of Pagliacci’s ‘Vesti la giubba’ was the first recording to ever ‘go platinum’, selling a million copies.