It’s difficult to imagine this most charming piece of music is the result of a competition won. A young Italian composer Mascagni (pictured above) who hadn’t had an Opera performed on stage (and hence eligible) entered the Milanese competition by submitting a one-act opera which would be judged by a jury of five prominent Italian critics and composers. With just 2 months before the closing date, Mascagni asked his friend Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, a poet and professor of literature at the Italian Royal Naval Academy in Livorno, to provide a libretto. A libretto in case you were wondering is a synopsis or scenario of the plot for the Opera.
Mascagni submitted his opera Cavalleria Rusticana on the last day that entries would be accepted. I wondered if he did an all-night cram session like we did the night before Uni exams jacked up to his eyeballs with copious cups of black coffee and red cordial. This also reminds me of that quote from Miracle Max in The Princess Bride: ‘Don’t rush me sonny. You rush a miracle man you get rotten miracles‘. In all, 73 operas were submitted, and on 5 March 1890, the judges selected the final three winners which of course included Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. What was the reception to it when it finally opened on 17 May 1890 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome to a half-empty house?
The audience included not only the most authoritative music critics in the country but also Queen Margherita, a great music lover. It was a success from its opening notes. Following Stagno’s rendition of the Siciliana behind the curtain the audience leaped to their feet with a thunderous applause not heard for many years. The Siciliana was encored as were several other numbers in the opera. It was a sensation, with Mascagni taking 40 curtain calls and winning the First Prize.– Wikipedia
Cavalleria Rusticana remains the best known of Mascagni’s 15 Operas. At the time of Mascagni’s death in 1945, the opera had been performed more than 14,000 times in Italy alone. Where I believe I first heard this exquisite Intermezzo was in the introduction to Scorsese’s Raging Bull. It was also used in the finale of The Godfather Part III, which also featured a performance of the opera as a key part of the film’s climax.