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Cavalleria rusticana: a guide to Mascagni's dramatic masterpiece and its best recordings

As the congregation files out of church and towards a scene of bloody murder, Ashutosh Khandekar selects the best recordings of Mascagni’s one-act Sicilian wonder, Cavalleria rusticana

Cavalleria rusticana
Published: March 8, 2022 at 4:59 pm
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For a relatively short opera (of around 75 minutes), Cavalleria rusticana packs a sensational punch with its torrid tale of sexual jealousy and deadly violence. The work was created over two months of furious activity to meet the deadline for a competition organised by music publishers Casa Sonzogno.

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Mascagni set a story by a contemporary writer, Giovanni Verga, whose gritty novels and plays concern themselves with the dark passions lurking within ordinary lives in rural Sicily. Out of 73 entries, three one-act operas were selected for the final in Rome. Mascagni’s work was a convincing winner. On opening night in 1890, the 26-year-old composer took 40 curtain calls, propelling him to international fame and establishing ‘verismo’ as a new operatic genre that would pave the way for Puccini. Mascagni composed 16 other works for stage, but none achieved the popular success of his first opera.

The best recordings of Cavalleria rusticana

Herbert von Karajan

Carlo Bergonzi, Fiorenza Cossotto, Giangiacomo Guelfi; La Scala Chorus & Orchestra (1965)

DG 457 7642

Cavalleria rusticana is one of the most recorded operas. Many versions have been remastered for CD and there is an impressive roll call of great singers and conductors available to the listener today. Herbert von Karajan’s 1965 Deutsche Grammophon recording, with tenor Carlo Bergonzi as the emotionally feckless Turiddu and Fiorenza Cossotto as the deeply-wronged Santuzza, stands out on account of its lovingly detailed realisation of the score, avoiding sentimentality while letting the passion flood out.

Karajan takes real care to bring clarity and definition to music that in the wrong hands can leave you wallowing in emotional treacle. With steady tempos, he builds up tension to a taut, shockingly violent conclusion. His graphic handling of orchestral texture brings the world of Cavalleria to life, with every nuance of light and colour brought into focus in the playing of La Scala’s orchestra.

Cossotto is quite outstanding, surely one of the finest mezzos on record. Here she sings with exquisite pathos and dramatic intensity, meltingly sweet in ‘Voi lo sapete’ and viciously compelling in ‘A te la mala Pasqua’, the curse she hurls at Turiddu at the church door. Bergonzi stops short of rough-edged sexual allure, but brings instead an elegance that captures something of Turiddu’s duplicitous charm, while Giangiacomo Guelfi gives Alfio a confident swagger.

Tullio Serafin

Del Monaco, Simionato, MacNeil; Accademia di Santa Cecilia Chorus & Orch (1961)

Eloquence 450 0162

Two Tullio Serafin recordings are available on CD. One is a mid-1950s mono release from EMI, featuring Maria Callas in the very best of voice – reason alone for giving it serious consideration. A better all-rounder, though, is Serafin’s 1961 recording. Giulietta Simionato’s gloriously rich, creamy mezzo is weightier than other leading Santuzzas, but her full-blooded verismo style is electrifying. This is matched by the Turiddu of Mario del Monaco at the height of his powers. Serafin’s Italianate reading, with vigorous outbursts of passion, gives this interpretation an authentic ring. Some may find it overblown, but if you want practically to smell the incense wafting from the church and the blood on the sand, this recording takes you there.

Alexander Rahbari

Aragall, Evstatieva, Tumagian; Slovak Philharmonic Chorus & Slovak Radio SO (1992)

Naxos 8.660022

For bargain-hunters, Naxos’s budget-price recording conducted by Alexander Rahbari is a satisfying choice. The cast isn’t as stellar as some, but that doesn’t preclude some first-class singing. Stefka Evstatieva is a beautifully focused, full-toned Santuzza and Eduard Tumagian brings some real thought and individuality to Alfio, with a sardonic edge that adds substance to his impetuousness. Giacomo Aragall is a shade unpolished as Turiddu – perhaps he was caught a little too late in his career for a role that he performed to great acclaim on stage. But he marshals the rough edges of his voice with intelligence to evoke the character’s tough brutality. Rahbari’s dramatic instincts are strong: the chorus is fluent and lusty and soloists emerge as vivid creations that leap straight from the stage.

Marek Janowski

Melody Moore, Brian Jagde, Elisabetta Fiorillo, Lester Lynch, Roxana Constantinescu; Leipzig Radio Choir; Dresden Philharmonic

Pentatone PTC 5186 772

This version of Mascagni’s one-act wonder is everything that verismo should be: intense, passionate and heart stopping as it reaches it’s grisly climax.

Marek Janowski, working with his own orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic transforms what is often a lumbering warhorse into a Wagnerian thoroughbred. As he unfolds the opening prelude, scales the climax of the Easter Hymn or slips into the celebrated Intermezzo you wonder whether you’ve really heard this opera before. And his orchestra rewards him with some sumptuous playing – particularly the strings – and always a scrupulous attention to detail.

We scored this recordings five stars and you can read our full review here

James Levine

Domingo, Scotto, Elvira; Ambrosian Opera Chorus
& National PO (1978)

RCA 88697576572 £8.99

James Levine’s RCA recording is a close runner up, particularly in the CD transfer which offers gloriously vivid sound. The National Philharmonic Orchestra unleashes plenty of passion, playing at the top of its form, while Levine keeps his singers on a tight leash, eschewing traditional verismo scenery-chewing for something rather more thoughtful and refined. Plácido Domingo turns in his usual heroics as Turiddu, Renata Scotto brings colour and drama to her Santuzza,

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Authors

Ashutosh KhandekarJournalist, BBC Music Magazine

Ashutosh Khandekar has been Editor of Opera Now since 1997. He was born in India, raised in Cumbria and honed his journalism in Hong Kong and London. While studying English at Oxford, he was a choral scholar with New College Choir. He is passionate about singing and is a keen tenor as well as an enthusiastic pianist.

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