Verismo twins by chance: Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci
At the premiere of Cavalleria rusticana on 17 May 1890 in Rome, the seats in Teatro Constanzi were only half filled and the audience was skeptical with young Pietro Mascagni. By the end of the opera, the composer and the singers were hailed for sixty curtain calls, and members of the audience were heard saying, “Abbiamo un maestro!” (Here comes a master!) Within the three years after the premiere, the opera was staged in forty-one cities in Italy. It was also brought to the audience of Vienna, St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires and New York. Ruggiero Leoncavllo’s Pagliacci followed a similar trajectory. It was the composer’s first successful venture in Italian opera. The premiere took place at Teatro Dal Verme in Milan on 21 May 1892, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Within the first two years, Pagliacci was translated into all the European languages. The opera was also recorded in its entirety as early as 1907.
Despite their geneses over a century ago, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci remain perennials on the season rosters of opera houses worldwide. In fact, they are perhaps the few best known Italian operas among audience of our time. The themes of love triangle, domestic violence, adultery and murder, so pungently depicted in these operas, reincarnate not only in popular entertainment, but also in the news headlines in reality. Regardless of the musical background of the audience, most of us would have encountered the Mascagni’s famous Intermezzo and the fragments of Leoncavallo’s “Vesti la giubba” through motion pictures, television series and commercials, and even in the unlikely context of cartoon.
The longevity of the reception of the two operas can perhaps be explained by their relevance to target audience. Because of the operas’ emphasis on humanity, the works appeal to people regardless of time and geography. While both work shares the theme of love and betrayal played out against the rural backdrop in southern Italy, the sources for the libretti are markedly different. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana was adapted from Gianni Verga’s stage play by the same name, which predated the opera by six years. According to Leoncavallo, who penned the libretto of Pagliacci himself, the story was based on an actual incident from his childhood. The crime happened in Montalto, a village in Calabria, and his father Vincenzo, then a magistrate at Cosenza, was appointed to judge this case. Nevertheless, musicological researches suggest that Leoncavallo might have drawn inspirations from several French plays, which reveal a similar plot and structure.
Two aspects regarding the histories of these two operas merit further discussion here: firstly, the pairing of the two as a double-bill (commonly known as Cav and Pag); and secondly, the label of verismo (realism) tagged onto these works. In spite of their similarities, it is worth pointing out that these two operas began their stage lives on separate orbits. At its Metropolitan premiere, Cavalleria was preceded by the first act of La traviata, and Pagliacci was paired with Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. The first Metropolitan performance to feature Cavalleria with Pagliacci dated back to December 22, 1893, with Pagliacci being performed first. It was not until 1894, the two operas were staged in the now standard order.
If we take a yet closer look at these works, it is not difficult to realize that apart from the resemblances in plot and structure, Cavalleria and Pagliacci differed greatly from Verdian operas in outlook: both consists of no more than two acts, a relatively smaller cast of singers and hence greater economy in production. This radical facelift was masterminded by Edoardo Sonzogno, an ambitious businessman and music publisher who tried to rivaled the privileged establishment of the House of Ricordi. Between 1888 and 1902, Sonzogno organized four competitions calling for original one-act Italian operas. Puccini had unsuccessfully submitted Le villi for the first competition. Mascagni’s opera was awarded the first prize in 1890. With the success of Cavalleria rusticana, Sonzogno was quick to seize the opportunity and continue his campaign by encouraging young composers to emulate Mascagni. Owing to the predominance of contemporary characters and references to the bottom rungs of the social ladder in these works, the term verismo (borrowed from Italian literature) became the banner and emblem of Casa Sonzogno. On the other hand, the 3000 lire cash prize was almost irresistible to any young composer determined to try his hands on opera. As a result, the decade of 1890s witnessed a flourish of new Italian operas, depicted with deliberate awareness of reality. Together with Mascagni, the subsequent winners, including Leoncavallo, Giordano and Cilea, were presented as the giovane scuola (young school) and their works were marketed as verismo operas.
Such label proved to be problematic in time. As the giovane scuola matured, they were no longer contented to compose within the confines of verismo, their later operas also became more diversified in content and form. Therefore, the validity of the term of verismo is generally overlooked or dismissed by scholars or musicologists. Nevertheless, the operas have since become prized repertoire among singers and opera audiences. In fact, with the burgeoning of verismo operas, composers (whether conscious or not) spearheaded a new demand on vocal style and acting. Singers built their career upon of versimo roles, most notably the husband and wife team of Roberto Stagno and Gemma Bellicioni, who sung the roles of Turiddu and Santuzza in the premiere of Cavalleria rusticana. The Prologue of Pagliacci was tailored to showcase the baritone Victor Maurel, who subsequently premiered the roles of Iago and Falstaff in Verdi’s operas. Enrico Caruso also made himself a household name with live and broadcasted performances of Pagliacci. Canio became his signature role that few can surpassed. The photograph of Caruso striking a drum in the costume of Pierrot remains one of the iconic images in the history of opera.