About this Recording
8.110261 - MASCAGNI: Cavalleria Rusticana (Milanov, Bjorling) (1953)

Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria Rusticana

Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) is in two scenes with an Intermezzo dividing the two parts (the curtain is not lowered). It is this work which can claim to have launched the melodramatic verismo style into Italian opera during the final decade of the nineteenth century. Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci compiled the libretto, based on the 1884 play by Giovanni Verga. The tale of infidelity and revenge in Sicily is brief in its time span, the plot being easily understood, with characters and a story line taken from everyday life. To this Mascagni put music which is both impassioned and direct. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the opera proved a runaway success from the time of its première at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 17th May 1890.

The rôle of the former soldier Turridu is one that any tenor worth his salt would wish to undertake. The character is one of a passionate and romantic lover and a daredevil. The pretty Santuzza is a woman who is ripe for the picking and she eventually carries Turiddu’s child. Spurned by her lover she is forced to tell his mother Lucia of her predicament. Her story becomes village gossip. Lola, formerly Turiddu’s lover, takes the easy option when he is in the army and marries the stayat- home and ‘safe’ Alfio, but with the return of her former lover she takes up with him again. Her husband, a carter, hears of Lola’s behaviour, and calls out her lover. Turridu bites Alfio’s ear, the customary acceptance of a challenge. The duel, strangely for so dramatic an opera, takes place off stage. Before the hubbub of screaming women, there is a momentary hush on the stage. Then a voice is heard: “They have killed neighbour Turridu”. The Intermezzo that divides the action is thought to depict the fervent piety of an Easter service within a sacred building. Beginning simply with strings, harp and organ, Mascagni provides a poignant and dramatic climax to the melody.

Born in Leghorn in December 1863, Mascagni first studied music in his birthplace before enrolling at the Milan Conservatory, where he was a pupil of the composer Amilcare Ponchielli. The younger man was unwilling to accept the strictures of academic study and left to join a touring opera company as a conductor. This was followed by a spell as a piano teacher in Cerignola. When the publishers Sanzogno advertised a competition in 1888 for a new one-act stage work, Mascagni wrote and entered his Cavalleria rusticana. It was awarded first prize. The première was a tremendous success for the young composer. It is, however, the only opera by Mascagni to have remained popular and be regularly performed. Not only has it been filmed several times but music from the opera has also been featured in other screen works, most notably in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part 3 in 1990.

Mascagni would write more than a dozen further operas, but none achieved lasting success outside Italy. The lyrical L’amico Fritz, a comedy dating from 1891, contains the charming and delightful Cherry Duet. Iris (1898) although musically more refined than Cavalleria, is saddled with an unattractive libretto. Isabeau (1911), based on the story of Lady Godiva, displays a return to the composer’s cruder style. His final opera was Nerone, written in 1935 and first given at La Scala in Milan. By then Mascagni’s musical language was old-fashioned musically and came over as crude as well.

Mascagni was no mean conductor, as can be heard in his own 1940 recording of Cavalleria and his series of recordings for both Odeon and Polydor (Naxos 8.110714-5). Unfortunately the composer threw in his lot with the Fascist regime in Italy and wrote a number of works in praise of its political ethos. Disgraced in the eyes of his fellow-countrymen after the fall of Mussolini in 1943, Mascagni lived his final two years in poverty and obscurity before his death in a Rome hotel in August 1945. Although his works are still performed in his own country, he is generally regarded abroad as a one-opera composer who composed in an overtly impassioned, direct and unfashionable musical language. Fortunately the last few years have seen the start of a reassessment and reawakening of interest in the music of Pietro Mascagni that could result in more performances outside Italy.

The present New York recording captures the prevailing standards of fifty years ago. The rôle of the doomed Santuzza is sung by the Croatian-born but American naturalised soprano Zinka Milanov (1906- 1989) who possessed one of the most beautiful voices of her time. She studied singing in her native Zagreb with Milka Terina and Fernando Carpi, making her début in 1927 at Ljubljana as Leonora in Il trovatore. A member of the Zagreb Opera between 1928 and 1935, she appeared at the Deutsches Theater in Prague and also Dresden as a guest before being chosen as soprano soloist in Verdi’s Requiem under Toscanini at the 1937 Salzburg Festival. Later that year Milanov joined the Metropolitan Opera in New York, singing 424 performances there, until her retirement in 1966. She sang at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in the 1940 to 1942 seasons in addition to San Francisco and Chicago. Milanov also appeared at La Scala in Milan in 1950 and at Covent Garden in 1956 where she sang Tosca, and Leonora in Il trovatore. Other rôles she sang included Norma, Donna Anna (Don Giovanni) and Maddelena (Andrea Chénier). She had a voice of translucent tonal beauty and considerable vocal power but her exquisite pianissimo singing was greatly admired in Bellini, Puccini and Verdi. Her complete opera recordings include Tosca, Aida, La Gioconda. La forza del destino and Il trovatore (Naxos 8.11024-41).

The Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960) was born in Stora Tuna in the district of Dalarna, and as a boy toured and recorded with the family quartet, in addition to visiting the United States. His adult teachers were his father David, John Forsell and the Scottish tenor Joseph Hislop. He was a member of the Royal Opera in Stockholm from 1930 onwards but two years later began his international career in Germany, followed by Vienna (1936), the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1938) and Covent Garden the following year. Whilst Björling was widely regarded as the foremost ‘Italian’ tenor of his day in the spinto rôles of Puccini and Verdi, he also excelled in French opera. His work was highly respected for its artistic qualities, even if his acting ability was somewhat stilted. He recorded extensively from the mid-1930s until his early death in 1960. His poor health in later years was caused by heart problems. His ten complete operatic recordings include Il trovatore (Naxos 8.110240-41) and Pagliacci (Naxos 8.110258).

Brooklyn-born Robert Merrill (b. 1917) first studied with his mother. Following his stage début in 1943, he won the Met Auditions of the Air, which brought about his first appearance in that house in December 1945. It was here that the larger part of Merrill’s career was spent over a period of thirty years, appearing in nearly 750 performances of 21 rôles. Generally considered to have possessed one of the finest lyric baritone voices of his time, Merrill excelled in both French and Italian rôles. While his career was predominately based in the United States he also appeared in London (1967) and Venice (1961). He recorded extensively, including many of the principal Verdi baritone rôles. Robert Merrill can also be heard as Silvio in Pagliacci (Naxos 8.110258).

The mezzo-soprano Margaret Roggero (b. 1918) had to overcome the objections of her family to become a singer. After studying at the Juilliard School of Music in New York her first major engagement was as the Secretary in Menotti’s The Consul in 1950. Later that year she became a member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York where she would sing for thirteen years. Her 75 rôles during that time included Siebel in Faust, Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, La Cieca in La Gioconda, Margret in Wozzeck and Fydor in Boris Godunov. Dissatisfied with the lack of more important rôles Roggero retired from the Met to bring up her two children. She was a guest at the Met’s centennial celebrations in 1993. Her other recording include Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette under Charles Munch, Ines in Il trovatore (Naxos 8.110240-41), Berta in Il barbiere di Siviglia and Siebel in Faust.

The conductor Renato Cellini (1912-1967) was born in Turin into a theatrical family. He became a child prodigy as a cellist, giving his first recital at the age of ten. Later he would learn the piano and organ. At his native city’s Conservatory he studied composition with Alfano and Ghedini, later working in Italian opera houses as a repetiteur and conductor. He worked with Glyndebourne Festival Opera after the war but then moved to New York, where he worked with the musical staff at the Metropolitan until 1954. He also conducted a handful of opera performances with the company. He suffered a heart attack in September 1950 and his health was never robust after that date. Between 1954 and 1964 Cellini served as Music Director of the New Orleans Opera Association. He also conducted opera in Mexico City (1948-49), Cincinatti and Caracas. He conducted four operas for RCA, Pagliacci (Naxos 8.110258), Cavalleria rusticana, Rigoletto (Naxos 8.110148-49) and Il trovatore (Naxos 8.110240-41), in addition to accompanying a wide range of singers in operatic arias.

What is particular in the present American-made recording is that the singers do observe Mascagni’s markings and thereby greatly enhance the musical qualities of the composer’s score. As the 1955 edition of The Record Guide commented at the time: “It is hard to imagine a more enjoyable Cavalleria today. It is very stylishly conducted by Renato Cellini, who never for a moment lets the score sound vulgar.”

Malcolm Walker

Close the window