Pietro Mascagni

Biography

Born: Dec 7, 1863; Italy   Died: Aug 2, 1945; Italy   Period: Romantic
Though regarded by casual opera followers as a one-work composer, Pietro Mascagni wrote other operas of interest and some quality. Aside from Cavalleria Rusticana, the winsomely comic L'amico Fritz, the wrenchingly dramatic Iris, and Il Piccolo Marat attest to a diversity of mood and manner. Still, Mascagni's first opera was so successful that subsequent efforts simply could not equal that initial triumph. His embrace of Mussolini's Fascist Read more regime seemed self-serving during the 1920s and 1930s; at the end, it left Mascagni discredited and impoverished.
Although his parents had conceived for their son a career in law, Mascagni did receive some private training. However, when he began to study with the director of the newly formed Istituto Musicale Livornese, his father forbade further musical studies until a bachelor uncle interceded to offer young Pietro a home and means to finance his training. When Mascagni arrived at the Milan Conservatory, he remained only two years before embarking on an unsettled career as an orchestra member and occasional conductor of touring operetta companies. Upon marriage to Lina Carbognani in 1889, he settled in Puglia as a music instructor.
To a competition mounted by the music publisher Sonzogno, Mascagni submitted his third opera, Cavalleria Rusticana, in February 1890. At its Roman premiere on May 17, an unprecedented success propelled the composer from provincial hopeful to newly minted maestro. The following year, Mascagni enjoyed a more muted achievement with L'Amico Fritz. Silvano brought a return to verismo in 1895, although its reception was less positive than that accorded Iris, a substantial success in 1899 with a hyper-intense Oriental theme. Recurrently, the composer turned to themes of loss when choosing his libretti, recalling the desolation he felt at his mother's death when he was but 10 years old. An illicit relationship with Anna Lolli, begun in 1903, lasted until Mascagni's death in 1945.
Mascagni continued to compose in the new century, completing Isabeau in 1911, Parisina in 1913, Lodoletta in 1917, and Il piccolo Marat in 1921. As with the overblown Nerone, written in 1935 to please the regime, Mascagni often explored the outer limits of vocal possibility with punishing tessituras and unrelentingly high volume. He appeared occasionally as a conductor, more positively in Italy than in an ill-conceived American tour in 1902-03. Read less
Mascagni: Iris / Patané, Domingo, Tokody, Pons, Giaiotti
Release Date: 07/14/1989   Label: Cbs Masterworks  
Catalog: 45526   Number of Discs: 2
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Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana; Leoncavallo: Pagliacci / Corelli
Release Date: 11/08/1991   Label: Emi Classics  
Catalog: 63967   Number of Discs: 2
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Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana / Cellini, Milanov, Bjoerling
Release Date: 10/25/1990   Label: Rca Victor Gold Seal  
Catalog: 6510   Number of Discs: 1
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Historical - Leoncavallo, Mascagni / Serafin, Callas
Release Date: 06/07/2005   Label: Emi Classics  
Catalog: 86830   Number of Discs: 2
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Opera In English - Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana / Parry
Release Date: 04/21/1998   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 3004   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Cavalleria Rusticana

 

About This Work
Along with Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (1892), Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) is the primary example of Italian verismo (literally, "truthism" or "realism"). Cavalleria rusticana was both the best and worst thing that Read more happened to Mascagni, for its success -- never to be repeated -- weighed upon the composer all his life.

Giovanni Verga's (1840-1922) play Cavalleria rusticana was staged for the first time in 1884 to great acclaim. That same year, Mascagni saw the play in Milan, but considered using it as the basis of an opera only four years later, when he learned of the publisher Sonzogno's competition for a one-act opera, in 1888. (Mascagni claimed that his wife sent Sonzogno the score of Cavalleria rusticana, when he had planned to submit another work.) The composer commissioned Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti (1859-1934) to write a libretto and Targioni-Tozzetti sought help from Guido Menasci. The two finished the libretto by December 1888; Mascagni completed the score about six months later. Awarded the first prize in Sonzogno's competition, Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana premiered on May 17, 1890, at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Its success was immediate and unparalleled, it was translated into several languages and performed throughout the world within a year.

Mascagni stated his desire to remain close to Verga's original, and this is generally the case. However, Targioni-Tozzetti and Menasci made one important dramatic change. In Verga's, play, Santuzza disappears after she fulfills her dramatic function in her conversation with Alfio. At the end of the opera, she returns to center stage and faints.

There are significant parallels between Cavalleria and the hard-hitting realism and expressive music of Bizet's Carmen. Both take jealousy as the primary dramatic motivation, and both have Mediterranean settings with an emphasis on local color; Mascagni produces the latter by using a Sicilian dialect in Turiddu's serenade during the innovative orchestral Prelude (innovative primarily for its inclusion of this central sung passage). The key of F major, traditionally a "rustic" key, dominates the Prelude.

Leitmotives serve an important function in Cavalleria. The most powerful of these is the lugubrious theme accompanying Santuzza's entrance and reappearing at several climactic moments. Among these are "Mala Pasqua," in which Santuzza berates Turiddu and at the tragic ending of the piece, suggesting that the theme represents cruel fate rather than Santuzza. Musical illustration of a different type occurs in Alfio's entrance aria, in which the unsettling rhythms and malign melody belie the wonderful world he describes. Alternating recitative and arioso convey myriad feelings in the duet for Turiddu and Santuzza ("Tu qui, Santuzza?").

In some aspects of the formal organization of Cavalleria, Mascagni takes a step backward. This is most apparent in the composer's use of set "numbers," which Verdi had almost abandoned in the recent Otello (1887). This traditional plan allowed Mascagni to communicate his ideas more directly and create a series of continuous scenes in which characters could express their individual passions.

-- John Palmer
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