Wednesday, 17 May 2017


Pietro Mascagni.
127 years ago today at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi, an uproarious crowd, fevered to dizzying heights with convulsive-inducing adulation unanimously rose to their feet to echo shouts of bravo! and encore! for the latest – and greatest – operatic spectacle the Italian capital had seen for some time. Their very vocal display of gratitude seemed to have no end in sight – demanding of the master of such an awe-inspiring work to repeatedly show himself to them – a staggering 40 times – so that they could continue to laud praise upon their newfound operatic God.

The mere mortal behind those heart-palpitating curtain calls was the Tuscan born Pietro Mascagni – the opera in question: a brief, one-act competition piece called “Cavalleria Rusticana,” itself a simple opera - concerning the simple, yet highly passionate lives of Sicilian peasants - based on a charming (yet ultimately tragic) play and short story by the writer Giovanni Verga.  

Surely, the instant and overwhelming response received by Mascagni must have come of some shock - even to the composer himself: this was, after all, the very same opera Pietro had recently sent to his best mate and former conservatory co-inhabitant, Giacomo Puccini – who, in concurrence with his publisher Giulio Ricordi, dismissed the score as unworthy drivel – hardly the type of work capable of winning any sort of competition. It was the same opera a disenchanted Mascagni then tucked away in a drawer instead of in the hands of an awaiting messenger to the enterprising music publisher Edoard Sonzogno – who was presently offering to the unsung maestri of opera a chance at fame: simply compose an opera worthy of the stage, and the wealthy entrepreneur would not only gladly host it, but also pay for the whole affair.

For Lina Carbognan, Mascagni’s bride of only one year, sweeping the entire project under the rug would simply not do. For Lina, the best tactic to employ to win the contest was to simply try. Unbeknownst to Puccini, his publisher Ricordi – and even to her husband – Mrs. Mascagni submitted Pietro’s work to Sonzogno.

Cavalleria Rusticana was immediately placed in the running. It was only but one of three operas to have been considered of high enough caliber for the challenging competition (out of a total of 73 submissions).

Rusticana's de-facto heroine, Lina Carbognan, who submitted her
husband's score on the sly.
Apparently, Sonzogno and Mrs. Mascagni had both an eye - and ear - for unchecked talent: Rusticana would premiere on this 17th day in May, 1890 to an ovatious crowd (of which the Italian Queen Margherita was in attendance).  In an instant, the formerly obscure composer had made for himself a name that would be chanted and cheered not only across Italy, but as far as western and central Europe. Even renowned musicians jumped aboard the runaway train: Austrian composer Gustav Mahler would famously conduct the opera in Budapest. By the time of Mascagni's death in 1945, Cavalleria Rusticana would have been staged some 14, 000 times in Italy alone.

For his triumph, Pietro was bejeweled with medallic city honors, the city of Cerignola greeted the composer’s arrival with torchlight processions - even the King himself bestowed the Order of the Crown of Italy upon Mascagni's head, thereby Knighting the humble musician. This was nothing short of a full-blown love affair.

It would be one that would last.

Although Mascagni would never again reach quite the same height of success with his subsequent operas as he had at the Teatro Costanzi, the grand prize winner of the Sonzogno competition of 1890, Cavalleria Rusticana, continues to be a staple piece of the so-called verismo operatic repertoire to this day - proving that age old adage that a little bit of faith and a lot of perseverance pays off in the end.

Listen below to the charming aria “O Lola c'hai di latti la cammisa" ("O Lola! like the snow, pure in thy whiteness!") from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, performed here by the irreplaceable tenor Enrico Caruso (1910). Also, depending on your fancy, you may wish to check out Jonas Kaufmann’s controversial – far more subdued - rendition of the same aria here. It may not be the first choice for most fans of Mascagni, but to my personal taste, is quite lovely.

Did You Know?

A historical double-bill performance of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci served as the first radio program to be broadcast over the airwaves, on January 13, 1910. It was all thanks to one stalwart innovator by the name of Lee De Forest, who, enamored by the famed tenor Enrico Caruso, wished to hear his hero through the magic of wireless telephony. Using a crude and hastily constructed device which connected a microphone, hung over the Metropolitan Opera Houses’ stage to a telephone on MET director Giulio Gatti Casazza’s desk, Forest proceeded to explain the fundamentals of his vision:

(from NY Times):
“Delighted with this bugging device, Gatti-Casazza allowed De Forest to rig up his radio transmitter backstage at the Met and string his antenna on the roof, using a long fishing pole for his mast. On the evening of Jan. 13, 1910, the curtain rose over the double bill of ''Cavalleria Rusticana'' and ''Pagliacci.'' It was a stellar cast, with Caruso and Emmy Destinn in the leading roles. De Forest threw the switch that brought his contraption to life and filled the sky with music.

Few listened. There were no radios. But public receivers had been set up in several well-advertised locations in New York City, and people could catch at least an inkling of the music on earphones. The next day, The New York Times reported that static and other interference ''kept the homeless song waves from finding themselves.'' Even so, De Forest had made his point. Though it had to wait another 13 years for its realization, the idea of broadcasting had been established. ”
Read the full article here.


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