Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana provides a visceral experience unlike many other operas, music scholar Alan Mallach contends: “It just grabs you by the throat.”

While assessment this is nearly universally accepted, opinions about Mascagni in general are more divided. The respected Viking Opera Guide hints at the criticism often directed at the composer-conductor when it suggests that he can easily be dismissed as a “self-promoting opportunist and a composer of limited achievements.”

Mallach, author of the 2002 book, Pietro Mascagni and His Operas, completely disagrees. “If you say ‘limited achievements,’ it depends on your frame of reference,” he said. “If you say: ‘Was he Wagner? Was he Verdi?’ No, of course not. He is not part of the ultimate pantheon of the great composers.

“But in a professional career of close to 50 years, he wrote 16 significant operas, had a major international conducting career and was involved in nearly every aspect of Italian musical life. This is not a limited achievement. It’s an impressive record. Was he a self-promoter? To some extent. I think almost every important artist has a self-promotion streak in him or her.”

Opera scholar Alan Mallach believes the works of Pietro Mascagni deserve more respect. | Photo: Jim Moy

Although some of Mascagni’s other operas are occasionally performed, like his L’amico Fritz (Friend Fritz) (1891), one stands out above all the others: Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry). The one-act drama was a huge, immediate success upon its premiere in Rome in 1890, quickly spreading around the world and remaining a favorite in the repertory since.

Riccardo Muti will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert version of the ever-popular work Feb. 6-8. Featured will be the Chicago Symphony Chorus, as well as mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili (Santuzza), tenor Piero Pretti (Turiddu), baritone Luca Salsi (Alfio), mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller (Lucia) and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (Lola) in the central roles.

Although Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, D.C., is best known as an author of many publications on housing and planning, he also also has written about Italian opera, including his authoritative biography of Mascagni. A student of piano and composition before changing his career focus, he discovered a recording of Mascagni’s little-known opera Guglielmo Ratcliff (1895) during a trip to Italy in the early 1980s, and was totally captivated. “I said, ‘Who was this guy?” he recalled. “What incredible music.”

Mallach discovered that little had been written about the composer in English, and more surprisingly, there was not even a comprehensive, well-researched biography in Italian. At the time, he owned a housing development and consulting firm in Philadelphia, and he decided in 1989 to take a sabbatical so he could research Mascagni and then write a biography that would include access to the composer’s 4,200 letters to his mistress, Anna Lolli. Mallach eventually finished the book and got it published more than a decade later.

Part of Mallach’s task was sorting through the many mistruths that have sprouted up around Mascagni, including the myth — published in some usually reliable sources — that his wife was responsible for submitting Cavalleria rusticana to a one-act opera competition announced in 1889. In fact, as the composer wrote in a letter to one of his librettists on the project, he waited for two copies of the score of to be completed at the bindery and then took it to the post office himself.

A virtual unknown at the point, Mascagni supported himself by alternately playing the double bass, conducting and giving music lessons. But he became instantly famous with the success of his one-act opera, which won first prize, and was produced at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome.

Pietro Mascagni | Photo: Gavo Studio/Library of Congress

Although he would never write another opera that achieved similar success, he nonetheless remained one Italy’s most important musical figures for the rest of his life. A decade after the debut of Cavalleria rusticana, he traveled to the United States, with stops in New York and Chicago.

Throughout his career, he believed that he was a champion and even an embodiment of Italian music and culture. He launched crusades on various issues in the 1910s and 1920s, trying to uphold musical tradition and fight against the encroachment of modernism, even though some of this later works clearly showed that he was at least slightly influenced by them. “He wasn’t doing that for any personal reasons,” Mallach said, “but because he was passionately convinced that this was the essence of Italian culture and if they allowed the modernists to gain sway, that would be to the detriment of Italian culture.”

Far and away, Mascagni remains best known for Cavalleria rusticana, which ushered in a wave of verismo or realism in Italian opera. Rather than kings, queens or mythological figures, the story takes place in an Italian village and revolves around the jealousy between Turiddu’s  lovers, Lola and Santuzza, that ultimately leads to a tragic duel between Alfio (Lola’s husband) and Turiddu.

“It’s an incredible opera,” Mallach said. “It’s utterly different from anything anybody had ever heard before and yet immediately approachable. It’s hard to summarize how different it is. It’s probably the first opera that is something like real time. It’s also incredibly blunt, powerful and pithy. And it has an unbelievable dramatic arc.”

All the action takes place in one day, and unlike traditional operas in which arias suspend time, such solos operate within real time in this work and are very much part of the dramatic arc. Mallach pointed to a pause toward the end of the opera when Turiddu is challenged to a duel and he stops singing for a few bars. A kind of cello recitative is heard, but rather than just filling or stopping time, the music serves a dramatic purpose, representing Turiddu’s thoughts as he tries to figure how to respond to Alfio’s challenge.

In addition, Cavalleria rusticana is one of the first operas that integrates elements of popular music into the score — not just as contextual color but as an integral part of the work. Mallach’s points to Turiddu’s serenade in the prologue, O, Lola; his drinking song, Viva il vino spumeggiante, and Lola’s song, Flor di giaggiolo. Each incorporates in some way popular musical rhythms or flavors of the time, ones that Mascagni would have gleaned as an itinerant conductor before his composing career took off. “It’s another thing that comes out of this opera,” he said. “And makes it very approachable and simultaneously very different.”

TOP: Santuzza implores Turridu to return to her in Cavalleria rusticana. | Illustration: Wikimedia