Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci
It is no surprise that Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci are often performed together. With their common themes of unbridled lust and murderous jealousy, the two operas make ideal operatic stable mates. They are also immensely important in the history of the genre. The quick fame they enjoyed, not just in Italy but all over the world, marked the point at which the romantic era in musical theatre finally gave way to realism.
Based on a story of the same name by Giovanni Verga, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) was the accidental winner of a competition organised by the Sonzogno publishing company. Fearing it was not good enough, Mascagni had intended to submit another work, Guglielmo Ratcliff, but his wife had already sent Cavalleria rusticana to Sonzogno instead. The opera, which received its premiere at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi on 17 May 1890, the same venue as for this superb double bill, would have been shocking to the first audiences who saw it; its sense of danger and violence had no precedent in the genre. Turiddu, returning home after serving in the army, seduces and then spurns Santuzza; in truth he covets another woman, Lola. They had once been lovers, but Lola is now married to Alfio. When Santuzza tells Alfio that Turiddu and Lola have been seeing each other again, honour demands that the two men confront one another.
Ruggero Leoncavallo wrote Pagliacci (Clowns) to emulate the success of Cavalleria rusticana. He took verismo one step further by basing his opera on a real-life event: a man who murdered his wife. Leoncavallo’s father, a magistrate, led the investigation into the case. First performed on 21 May 1892 at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, the opera opens with a group of actors getting ready to give a play. Canio, the leader of a troupe, is informed that his wife, Nedda, is cheating on him. Various members of the company persuade Canio not to do anything until the entertainment they have prepared has ended. But the drama they have concocted is simply too close, in its narrative, to real events for Canio to endure.
Cavalleria rusticana sees its characters bound by a brutal code of behaviour. They cannot control their passions but accept the consequences of giving in to them. In that sense they obey the rules that govern their society.
Pagliacci disturbingly makes us ponder what is real and what is not. Realism, whether in literature or opera, is meant to be a fiction. However, as the cast of Pagliacci show us, the line between real and imagined worlds is often blurred. Particularly when we lose control of our emotions.