Cavalleria rusticana: Mascagni's smash hit

October 28, 2015
Ray Heigemeir
Pietro Mascagni

Cavalleria rusticana, original manuscript by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945); libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci after a play and story by Giovanni Verga. Memorial Library of Music, MLM 651.

Cavalleria rusticana premiered on May 17, 1890 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, one of three winners of a one-act opera competition sponsored by the publisher Sonzogno (the other two winners were Labilia by Nicola Spinelli and Rudello by Vincenzo Ferroni).  The young Mascagni was hesitant to enter; his wife Lina ended up sending the manuscript without his knowledge. This manuscript now resides in Stanford's Memorial Library of Music.

The Rome cast included Gemma Bellincioni, Roberto Stagno, Guadenzio Salassa, Anetta Guli, and Federica Casali. The next performance took place on August 19 at the Teatro Goldoni in Mascagni’s home city of Livorno, with Bellincioni, Stagno and Casali, joined by Ida Nobili and Mario Ancona (also a Livorno native).  Both performances were conducted by Leopoldo Mugnone.

The principal cast, with the composer (third from left), Livorno
The principal cast, with the composer, in Livorno (l-r: Stagno, Mugnone, Mascagni, Bellincioni, Ancona, Nobili, Casali)

Cavalleria rusticana was an immediate and huge success, and in a short time was produced around the world.  By 1892, it had been translated into Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, German, Hungarian, Slovenian, and Swedish; and premiered in over 40 cities as far-flung as Stockholm, Havana, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Bogota, Philadelphia, Mexico City, Warsaw, New Orleans, Liverpool, New York (at two different theaters on one day) and Rio de Janeiro. A command performance for Queen Victoria was given at Windsor Castle in July of 1892.

Though Mascagni was a fairly prolific composer, having written 15 operas, as well as incidental music, chamber works, songs, orchestral pieces, sacred and secular choral works, and music for film, the success of Cavalleria rusticana tended to overshadow the rest of his professional output. Later operas, including Iris, Isabeau, and Parisina, forshadowed the changing aesthetic of 20th century music, and are ripe for re-examination. Mascagni, who counted among his friends and colleagues Puccini, Mahler, and Verdi, conrtinued to compose and also to conduct throughout Europe until his death in 1945.

Teatro Goldoni, Livorno
Teatro Goldoni, Livorno

In addition to the manuscript score, the Memorial Library of Music also holds:

  • a first edition of the vocal score with French text (Sonzogno, 1891);
  • a print of Gemma Bellincioni in peasant costume, inscribed with her good wishes for the Memorial Library of Music (1950);
  • an inscribed photo of the composer including two bars from the opera;
  • a manuscript fragment (2 leaves) dated September 1924; and
  • a 50th anniversary commemorative publication (Milan : Bestetti, 1940)

Numerous sound and video recordings and printed scores are available in the Music Library, the Archive of Recorded Sound, and through our streaming media databases. See, in particular, the 50th anniversary recording, conducted by Mascagni, which includes introductory remarks by the composer.

In local news:  an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 6, 1892, reported on a strike by the chorus members of the Emma Juch Grand Opera Company, who were performing  scenes from Romeo & Juliet followed by Cavalleria rusticana. The chorus had not been paid in several days and threatened to walk out; the conflict came to a head during intermission. In a huff, the company manager shouted at everyone to leave, but that the Cavalleria costumes they had just donned were to be left behind. He then rounded up some ladies working backstage, and a dozen men loitering on the street. “None of them could sing a line, but they stood about on the stage when the curtain finally went up and did their best to look like peasants. The audience did not notice the deception, and the critics only remarked that the chorus “seemed weak.””

With thanks to Astrid Smith, Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist, and the Digital Production Group for providing downloadable images of this work.