HAVING neither the patience nor the inclination to paraphrase a comment on Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” which I wrote years ago when the opera was comparatively new, and as it appears to me to contain a just estimate and criticism of the work and the school of which it and “Pagliacci” remain the foremost exemplars, I quote from my book, “Chapters of Opera”‘ : “Seventeen years ago `Cavalleria rusticana’ had no perspective. Now, though but a small portion of its progeny has been brought to our notice, we nevertheless look at it through a vista which looks like a valley of moral and physical death through which there flows a sluggish stream thick with filth and red with blood. Strangely enough, in spite of the consequences which have followed it, the fierce little drama retains its old potency. It still speaks with a voice which sounds like the voice of truth. Its music still makes the nerves tingle, and carries our feelings unresistingly on its turbulent current. But the stage-picture is less sanguinary than it looked in the beginning. It seems to have receded a millennium in time. It has the terrible fierceness of an Attic tragedy, but it also has the decorum which the Attic tragedy never violated. There is no slaughter in the presence of the audience, despite the humbleness of its personages. It does not keep us perpetually in sight of the shambles. It is, indeed, an exposition of chivalry ; rustic, but chivalry nevertheless. It was thus Clytemnestra slew her husband, and Orestes his mother. Note the contrast which the duel between Alfio and Turiddu presents with the double murder to the piquant accompaniment of comedy in ‘Pagliacci,’ the opera which followed so hard upon its heels. Since then piquancy has been the cry ; the piquant contemplation of adultery, seduction, and murder amid the reek and stench of the Italian barnyard. Think of Cilèa’s `Tilda,’ Giordano’s ‘Mala Vita,’ Spinelli’s `A Basso Porto,’ and Tasca’s `A Santa Lucia’ !
“The stories chosen for operatic treatment by the champions of verismo are all alike. It is their filth and blood which fructifies the music, which rasps the nerves even as the plays revolt the moral stomach. I repeat : Looking back over the time during which this so-called veritism has held its orgies, ‘Cavalleria rusticana’ seems almost classic. Its music is highly spiced and tastes `hot i’ th’ mouth,’ but its eloquence is, after all, in its eager, pulsating, passionate melody like the music which Verdi wrote more than half a century ago for the last act of ‘Il Trovatore.’ If neither Mascagni himself nor his imitators have succeeded in equalling it since, it is because they have thought too much of the external devices of abrupt and uncouth change of modes and tonalities, of exotic scales and garish orchestration, and too little of the fundamental element of melody which once was the be-all and end-all of Italian music.
Another fountain of gushing melody must be opened before `Cavalleria rusticana’ finds a successor in all things worthy of the succession. Ingenious artifice, reflection, and technical cleverness will not suffice even with the blood and mud of the slums as a fertilizer.”
How Mascagni came to write his opera he has himself told us in a bright sketch of the early part of his life-history which was printed in the “Fanfulla della Domenica” of Rome shortly after he became famous. Recounting the story of his struggle for existence after entering upon his career, he wrote :
In 1888 only a few scenes (of “Ratcliff “) remained to be composed ; but I let them lie and have not touched them since. The thought of “Cavalleria rusticana” had been in my head for several years. I wanted to introduce my-self with a work of small dimensions. I appealed to several librettists, but none was willing to undertake the work without a guarantee of recompense. Then came notice of the Sonzogno competition and I eagerly seized the opportunity to better my condition. But my salary of 100 lire, to which nothing was added, except the fees from a few pianoforte lessons in Cerignola and two lessons in the Philharmonic Society of Canosa (a little town a few miles from Cerignola), did not permit the luxury of a libretto. At the solicitation of some friends Targioni, in Leghorn, decided to write a “Cavalleria rusticana” for me. My mind was long occupied with the finale. The words : Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu ! (They have killed Neighbor Turiddu!) were forever ringing in my ears. I needed a few mighty orchestral chords to give characteristic form to the musical phrase and achieve an impressive close. How it happened I don’t know, but one morning, as I was trudging along the road to give my lessons at Canosa, the idea came to me like a stroke of lightning, and I had found my chords. They were those seventh chords, which I conscientiously set down in my manuscript.
Thus I began my opera at the end. When I received the first chorus of my libretto by post (I composed the Siciliano in the prelude later) I said in great good humor to my wife :
“Today we must make a large expenditure.” “What for?”
“An alarm clock.”
“To wake me up before dawn so that I may begin to write on ‘Cavalleria rusticana.’ ”
The expenditure caused a dubious change in the monthly budget, but it was willingly allowed. We went out together, and after a good deal of bargaining spent nine lire. I am sure that I can find the clock, all safe and sound, in Cerignola. I wound it up the evening we bought it, but it was destined to be of no service to me, for in that night a son, the first of a row of them, was born to me. In spite of this I carried out my determination, and in the morning began to write the first chorus of “Cavalleria.” I came to Rome in February, 1890, in order to permit the jury to hear my opera; they decided that it was worthy of performance. Returning to Cerignola in a state of the greatest excitement, I noticed that I did not have a penny in my pocket for the return trip to Rome when my opera was to be rehearsed. Signor Sonzogno helped me out of my embarrassment with a few hundred francs.
Those beautiful days of fear and hope, of discouragement and confidence, are as vividly before my eyes as if they were now. I see again the Constanzi Theatre, half filled ; I see how, after the last excited measures of the orchestra, they all raise their arms and gesticulate, as if they were threatening me ; and in my soul there awakens an echo of that cry of approval which almost prostrated me. The effect made upon me was so powerful that at the second representation I had to request them to turn down the footlights in case I should be called out ; for the blinding light seemed a hell to me, like a fiery abyss that threatened to engulf me.
It is a rude little tale which Giovanni Verga wrote and which supplied the librettists, G. Targioni-Tozzetti and G. Menasci, with the plot of Mascagni’s opera. Sententious as the opera seems, it is yet puffed out, padded, and bedizened with unessential ornament compared with the story. This has the simplicity and directness of a folk-tale or folk-song, and much of its characteristic color and strength were lost in fitting it out for music. The play, which Signora Duse presented to us with a power which no operatic singer can ever hope to match, was more to the purpose, quicker and stronger in movement, fiercer in its onrush of passion, and more pathetic in its silences than the opera with its music, though the note of pathos sounded by Signor Mascagni is the most admirable element of the score. With half a dozen homely touches Verga conjures up the life of a Sicilian village and strikes out his characters in bold outline. Turiddu Macca, son of Nunzia, is a bersagliere returned from service. He struts about the village streets in his uniform, smoking a pipe carved with an image of the king on horse-back, which he lights with a match fired by a scratch on the seat of his trousers, “lifting his leg as if for a kick.” Lola, daughter of Massaro Angelo, was his sweetheart when he was conscripted, but meanwhile she has promised to marry Alfio, a teamster from Licodia, who has four Sortino mules in his stable. Now Turiddu could do nothing better than sing spiteful songs under her window.
Lola married the teamster, and on Sundays she would sit in the yard with her hands posed on her hips to show off the thick gold rings which her husband had given her. Opposite Alfio’s house lived Massaro Cola, who was as rich as a hog, as they said, and who had an only daughter named Santa. Turiddu, to spite Lola, paid his addresses to Santa and whispered sweet words into her ear.
“Why don’t you go and say these nice things to Lola?” asked Santa one day.
“Lola is a fine lady now; she has married a crown prince. But you are worth a thousand Lolas ; she isn’t worthy of wearing your old shoes. I could just eat you up with my eyes, Santa”thus Turiddu.
“You may eat me with your eyes and welcome, for then there will be no leaving of crumbs.”
“If I were rich I would like to have a wife just like you.”
“I shall never marry a crown prince, but I shall have a dowry as well as Lola when the good Lord sends me a lover.”
The tassel on his cap had tickled the girl’s fancy. Her father disapproved of the young soldier, and turned him from his door ; but Santa opened her window to him until the village gossips got busy with her name and his. Lola listened to the talk of the lovers from behind a vase of flowers. One day she called after Turiddu : “Ah, Turiddu ! Old friends are no longer noticed, eh?”
“He is a happy man who has the chance of seeing you, Lola.”
“You know where I live,” answered Lola. And now Turiddu visited Lola so often that Santa shut her window in his face and the villagers began to smile knowingly when he passed by. Alfio was making a round of the fairs with his mules. “Next Sunday I must go to confession,” said Lola one day, “for last night I dreamt that I saw black grapes.”
“Never mind the dream,” pleaded Turiddu.
“But Easter is coming, and my husband will want to know why I have not confessed.”
Santa was before the confessional waiting her turn when Lola was receiving absolution. “I wouldn’t send you to Rome for absolution,” she said. Alfio came home with his mules, and money and a rich holiday dress for his wife.
“You do well to bring presents to her,” said Santa to him, “for when you are away your wife adorns your head for you.”
“Holy Devil !” screamed Alfio. “Be sure of what you are saying, or I’ll not leave you an eye to cry with !”
“I am not in the habit of crying. I haven’t wept even when I have seen Turiddu going into your wife’s house at night.”
“Enough !” said Alfio. “I thank you very much.”
The cat having come back home, Turiddu kept off the streets by day, but in the evenings consoled him-self with his friends at the tavern. They were enjoying a dish of sausages there on Easter eve. When Alfio came in Turiddu understood what he wanted by the way he fixed his eyes on him. “You know what I want to speak to you about,” said Alfio when Turiddu asked him if he had any commands to give him. He offered Alfio a glass of wine, but it was refused with a wave of the hand.
“Here I am,” said Turiddu. Alfio put his arms around his neck. “We’ll talk this thing over if you will meet me to-morrow morning.”
“You may look for me on the highway at sunrise, and we will go on together.”
They exchanged the kiss of challenge, and Turiddu, as an earnest that he would be on hand, bit Alfio’s ear. His companions left their sausages uneaten and went home with Turiddu. There his mother was sitting up for him.
“Mamma,” Turridu said to her, “do you remember that when I went away to be a soldier you thought I would never come back? Kiss me as you did then, mamma, for to-morrow I am going away again.”
Before daybreak he took his knife from the place in the haymow where he had hidden it when he went soldiering, and went out to meet Alfio.
“Holy Mother of Jesus !” grumbled Lola when her husband prepared to go out ; “where are you going in such a hurry ? ”
“I am going far away,” answered Alfio, “and it will be better for you if I never come back !”
The two men met on the highway and for a while walked on in silence. Turiddu kept his cap pulled down over his face. ” Neighbor Alfio,” he said after a space, “as true as I live I know that I have wronged you, and I would let myself be killed if I had not seen my old mother when she got up on the pretext of looking after the hens. And now, as true as I live, I will kill you like a dog so that my dear old mother may not have cause to weep.”
“Good !” answered Alfio ; “we will both strike hard !” And he took off his coat.
Both were good with the knife. Turiddu received the first blow in his arm, and when he returned it struck for Alfio’s heart.
“Ah, Turiddu ! You really do intend to kill me ?
“Yes, I told you so. Since I saw her in the hen-yard I have my old mother always in my eyes.”
“Keep those eyes wide open,” shouted Alfio, “for I am going to return you good measure !”
Alfio crouched almost to the ground, keeping his left hand on the wound, which pained him. Suddenly he seized a handful of dust and threwit into Turiddu’s eyes.
“Ah !” howled Turiddu, blinded by the dust, “I’m a dead man !” He attempted to save himself by leaping backward, but Alfio struck him a second blow, this time in the belly, and a third in the throat.
“That makes three the last for the head you have adorned for me !”
Turiddu staggered back into the bushes and fell. He tried to say, “Ah, my dear mother !” but the blood gurgled up in his throat and he could not.
Music lends itself incalculably better to the celebration of a mood accomplished or achieved by action, physical or psychological, than to an expression of the action itself. It is in the nature of the lyric drama that this should be so, and there need be no wonder that wherever Verga offered an opportunity for set lyricism it was embraced by Mascagni and his librettists. Verga tells us that Turiddu, having lost Lola, comforted himself by singing spiteful songs under her window. This suggested the Siciliano, which, an afterthought, Mascagni put into his prelude as a serenade, not in disparagement, but in praise of Lola. It was at Easter that Alfio returned to discover the infidelity of his wife, and hence we have an Easter hymn, one of the musical high lights of the work, though of no dramatic value. Verga aims to awaken at least a tittle of extenuation and a spark of sympathy for Turiddu by showing us his filial love in conflict with his willingness to make reparation to Alfio ; Mascagni and his librettists do more by showing us the figure of the young soldier blending a request for a farewell kiss from his mother with a prayer for protection for the woman he has wronged. In its delineation of the tender emotions, indeed, the opera is more generous and kindly than the story. Santuzza does not betray her lover in cold blood as does Santa, but in the depth of her humiliation and at the climax of her jealous fury created by Turiddu’s rejection of her when he follows Lola into church. Moreover, her love opens the gates to remorse the moment she realizes what the consequence of her act is to be. The opera sacrifices some of the virility of Turiddu’s character as sketched by Verga, but by its classic treatment of the scene of the killing it saves us from the contemplation of Alfio’s dastardly trick which turns a duel into a cowardly assassination.
The prelude to the opera set the form which Leon-cavallo followed, slavishly followed, in “Pagliacci.”
The orchestral proclamation of the moving passions of the play is made by the use of fragments of melody which in the vocal score mark climaxes in the dialogue. The first high point in the prelude is reached in the strain to which Santuzza begs for the love of Turiddu, even after she has disclosed to him her knowledge of his infidelity the second is the broad melody in which she pleads with him to return to her arms.
Between these expositions falls the Siciliano, which interrupts the instrumental flood just as Lola’s careless song, the Stornello, interrupts the passionate rush of Santuzza’s protestations, prayers, and lamentations in the scene between her and her faith-less lover.
These sharp contrasts, heightened by the device of surprise, form one of the marked characteristics of Mascagni’s score and one of the most effective. We meet it also in the instrumentation the harp accompaniment to the serenade, the pauses which give piquancy to Lola’s ditty, the unison violins, harp arpeggios, and sustained organ chords of the intermezzo.
When the curtain rises it discloses the open square of a Sicilian village, flanked by a church and the inn of Lucia, Turiddu’s mother. It is Easter morning and villagers and peasants are gathering for the Paschal mass. Church bells ring and the orchestra breaks into the eager melody which a little later we hear combined with the voices which are hymning the pleasant sights and sounds of nature.
Delightful and refreshing is the bustling strain of the men. The singers depart with soft exclamations of rapture called out by the contemplation of nature and thoughts of the Virgin Mother and Child in their hearts. Comes Santuzza, sore distressed, to Mamma Lucia, to inquire as to the whereabouts of her son Turiddu. Lucia thinks him at Francofonte ; but Santuzza knows that he spent the night in the village.
In pity for the maiden’s distress, Lucia asks her to enter her home, but Santuzza may not she is ex-communicate. Alfio enters with boisterous jollity, singing of his jovial carefree life as a teamster and his love of home and a faithful wife. It is a paltry measure, endurable only for its offering of contrast, and we will not tarry with it, though the villagers echo it merrily. Alfio, too, has seen Turiddu, and Lucia is about to express her surprise when Santuzza checks her. The hour of devotion is come, and the choir in the church intones the “Regina coeli,” while the people without fall on their knees and sing the Resurrection Hymn. After the first outburst, to which the organ appends a brief postlude, Santuzza leads in the canticle, “Innegiamo il Signor non è morte” :
The instrumental basses supply a foundation of Bachian granite, the chorus within the church interpolates shouts of “Alleluia !” and the song swells until the gates of sound fly wide open and we forget the theatre in a fervor of religious devotion. Only the critic in his study ought here to think of the parallel scene which Leoncavallo sought to create in his opera.
Thus far the little dramatic matter that has been introduced is wholly expository ; yet we are already near the middle of the score. All the stage folk enter the church save Santuzza and Lucia, and to the mother of her betrayer the maiden tells the story of her wrongs. The romance which she sings is marked by the copious use of one of the distinguishing devices of the veritist composers the melodic triplet, an efficient help for the pushing, pulsating declamation with which the dramatic dialogue of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and their fellows is carried on. Lucia can do no more for the unfortunate than commend her to the care of the Virgin. She enters the church and Turiddu comes. He lies as to where he has been. Santuzza is quick with accusation and reproach, but at the first sign of his anger and a hint of the vengeance which Alfio will take she abases herself. Let him beat and insult her, she will love and pardon though her heart break. She is in the extremity of agony and anguish when Lola is heard trolling a careless song.
She is about to begin a second stanza when she enters and sees the pair. She stops with an exclamation. She says she is seeking Alfio. Is Turiddu not going to mass? Santuzza, significantly : “It is Easter and the Lord sees all things ! None but the blameless should go to mass.” But Lola will go, and so will Turiddu. Scorning Santuzza’s pleadings and at last hurling her to the ground, he rushes into the church. She shouts after him a threat of Easter vengeance and fate sends the agent to her in the very moment. Alfio comes and Santuzza tells him that Turiddu has cuckolded him and Lola has robbed her of her lover.
The oncoming waves of the drama’s pathos have risen to a supreme height, their crests have broken, and the wind-blown spume drenches the soul of the listeners ; but the composer has not departed from the first principle of the master of whom, for a time, it was hoped he might be the legitimate successor. Melody remains the life-blood of his music as it is that of Verdi’s from his first work to his last ; as it will be so long as music endures.
Terrible is the outbreak of Alfio’s rage :
Infami lero, ad esse non perdono, Vendetta avro pria che tra monti il di.
Upon this storm succeeds the calm of the inter-mezzo in its day the best abused and most hackneyed piece of music that the world knew ; yet a triumph of simple, straightforward tune. It echoes the Easter hymn, and in the midst of the tumult of earthly passion proclaims celestial peace. Its instrumentation was doubtless borrowed from Hellmesberger’s arrangement of the air “Ombra mai fù” from “Serse,” known the world over as Handel’s “Largo” violins in unison, harp arpeggios, and organ harmonies. In nothing artistically distinguished it makes an unexampled appeal to the multitude. Some years ago a burlesque on “Cavalleria rusticana” was staged at a theatre in Vienna. It was part of the witty conceit of the author to have the intermezzo played on a handorgan. Up to this point the audience had been hilarious in its enjoyment of the burlesque, but with the first wheezy tones from the grinder the people settled down to silent attention ; and when the end came applause for the music rolled out wave after wave. A burlesque performance could not rob that music of its charm madre a Santa !” It is the cry of a child. “A kiss ! Another kiss, mamma ! Farewell ! Lucia calls after him. He is gone, Santuzza comes in with her phrase of music descriptive of her unhappy love. It grows to a thunderous crash. Then a hush ! A fateful chord ! A whispered roll of the drums ! A woman is heard to shriek : “They have killed Neighbor Turiddu !” A crowd of women rush in excitedly ; Santuzza and Lucia fall in a swoon. “Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu !” The tragedy is ended.