Easter Sunday might be the perfect time to take a closer look at an opera that is actually set on that day. A handful of us were fortunate to be able to play the whole operatic score, seated in the pit of the Siri Fort auditorium in an Indo-Italian production of Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry).
It is a one-act opera written by Italian composer Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) to a libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci, and adapted from a play and short story by Giovanni Verga. It was written as a submission for a competition to all young Italian composers who had not yet staged an opera. Mascagni got wind of it barely weeks before the deadline. The librettists sent him the text in snippets, often on the back of a postcard; the complete opera was submitted on the final date of submission. Of the 73 entries, Cavalleria made it to the winning three.
Its first performance was a grand success, with Mascagni taking forty curtain calls and it took the world’s major opera houses by storm after that.
The synopsis in brief: It is Easter morn in a 19th century Italian village. The main characters are Santuzza, a peasant girl (sung by soprano); Turridu, an army recruit recently returned to his village (tenor); Lucia his mother (contralto); Alfio a cart-driver (baritone); and Lola his wife but formerly Turridu’s fiancée(mezzo-soprano).
Turridu has returned to his village and is distraught that Lola has married Alfio. He therefore seduces Santuzza, making Lola jealous enough to start an adulterous affair with her old flame. You have to suspend your disbelief when it comes to operatic plots. Santuzza is viewed as the fallen woman by the village who are even contemplating getting her excommunicated, possibly because she might be pregnant although this is not overtly stated. She considers herself unworthy to enter the church for the Easter service. It is at this point that the famous Easter Hymn is sung, by the villagers and by Santuzza.
Spurned one time too many by Turridu, Santuzza blurts out to Alfio that he is being cuckolded by Turridu. Alfio swears vendetta (revenge); Santuzza, horrified, tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Alfio. After the Easter service and a right royal knees-up at Turridu’s mother Lucia’s tavern, Alfio challenges him to a duel. Turridu in acceptance bites Alfio’s ear which apparently is Italian code for ‘fight unto death.’ He seems to have a premonition of his own death as he bids farewell to his mother before rushing out. An off-stage shriek by a woman “Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu!” (They have murdered Turridu) is followed by onstage swooning of Santuzza and Lucia as the curtain falls. The ending is in fact the beginning of a tit-for-tat blood feud that will play out, perhaps for generations to come.
Cavalleria Rusticana was considered the forerunner of a then-new operatic style called ‘verismo’ (realism). In the post-Romantic period, composers, notably in Italy, sought to bring the naturalism of 19th century writers such as Henrik Ibsen and Émile Zola into opera. The style is distinguished by realistic, and often violent (as in this opera) depictions of contemporary everyday life (as opposed to historical, mythical subjects favoured in the Romantic era), especially among the lower echelons of society. Other composers in addition to Mascagni who wrote verismo opera include Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano and Giacomo Puccini. In fact, Cavalleria is often staged alongside another one-act opera by Leoncavallo, I Pagliacci. The double bill is affectionately called Cav & Pag in operatic circles.
The backdrop of Cavalleria Rusticana was used to telling effect in the last of the Godfather trilogy written by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It is in this opera that Don Michael Corleone’s son Anthony makes his operatic debut as tenor (Turridu) in the film’s finale, in Palermo Sicily. Scenes from the opera are mirrored in the film as well: the Easter Hymn procession is echoed in the feast procession where the Corleones’ foe Joey Zasa meets his end. In fact a similar procession is the backdrop in Godfather II, where Vito Corleone wipes out the local Don and starts the whole Corleone legacy. And the “duel to the death” challenge by biting the opponent’s ear is exactly what the Don’s illegitimate nephew Vincent poses to Zasa, flushing the enmity out into the open.
The Easter Hymn begins with the sound of solemn chords played on a church organ, and an off-stage choral acclamation in Latin: Regina coeli, laetare quia, quem meruisti portare, resurrexit sicut dixit (rejoice Queen of Heaven, because He who thou didst bear, has risen again as He had prophesied). This is sung to the same melody that opens the famous Intermezzo featured a little later in the opera.
The onstage chorus then sings in Italian “Let us sing hymns to Him, He is not dead! He is radiant; He has risen from the grave! We hail the risen Lord, today ascended to the glory of Heaven!”
Then Santuzza sings a beautiful soaring descant melodic line to the same lyrics, the personification of the ecstasy of the Resurrection, and the interplay between her and the four-part chorus reaches a feverish climax at the end, in true Italian operatic fashion. It is sung to English lyrics as well, and was a particular favourite on Easter Sunday service with the choir I sang with at St Augustine’s, High Wycombe.
To hear Maria Callas singing Santuzza in the Easter Hymn, go to YouTube and type in the search words. If you like that, you’ll like the Intermezzo. And if you like that too, why not listen to the whole opera? 70 minutes of your life, and very well spent. A very good recommendation is Franco Zeferelli’s brilliant 1982 film of the Teatro alla Scala Milano production, featuring an impossibly handsome, young Plácido Domingo as the adulterous, fickle Turridu.
(An edited version of this article was published on 20 April 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)