Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, soap and water, penguins, Mario and Luigi, salt and pepper – some of the best things come in pairs. One of the most adored pairings in Italian opera is Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The two works were written independently but both share dramatic concision, melodic richness, an obsession with violent jealousy and are undeniable masterpieces of the verismo tradition of realism.
Mascagni composed two operas prior to Cavalleria rusticana – Pinotta in 1880 and Guglielmo Ratcliff in 1885. After his dismissal from the Milan Conservatory in 1884 for his lack of application, he endured six years of poverty and obscurity.
In 1888, he heard of a competition offering a prize for the best one-act opera, sponsored by the music publisher Sonzogno. Cavalleria rusticana is an intense 75 minute work which sets to music the Italian writer Giovanni Verga’s short story (1880) and play (produced 1884) of the same name. It took Mascagni two months to compose the opera which tells a story of love, betrayal, and revenge in Sicily. With its stirring melodies, including the famous Easter Hymn and tightly constructed plot, it was unanimously voted the competition winner.
The opera premiered in Rome on 17 May 1890, when the composer was only 27 years old. It was an instant success, receiving no less than 60 curtain calls.
Although Mascagni wrote and produced 15 other operas, none came close to matching the spectacular success of Cavalleria rusticana. It was a same story with Leoncavallo, who’s Pagliacci was so triumphant that he became famous overnight – a success he was never able to duplicate with his other eight operas.
Leoncavallo was a little-known composer at the time but inspired by the success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, he set out to compose his second opera – the first was Chatterton (1876). It is not often that composers write their own libretto but a real-life story, a case encountered by his father who was a police magistrate in Naples – an onstage murder of a wife by her jealous actor husband – lit a creative spark in Leoncavallo. Within five months he had written the libretto and composed the music.
Pagliacci premiered in Milan on 21 May 1892 with immediate success; today it is the only work by Leoncavallo in the standard operatic repertory. The opera owes its continuing success to the composer’s ability to balance humour, romance, and darkly violent moods.
The Metropolitan Opera first presented the pair as a double bill in 1893. But the order was Pagliacci-Cavalleria, the opposite of what modern audiences is used to seeing. The two operas have since been frequently performed as a double bill, a pairing referred to as ‘Cav and Pag’.
This double bill marked the start of Welsh National Opera’s story. On Monday 15 April 1946, WNO performed its first fully staged performances – Cavalleria rusticana with Tom Hopkins and Margaret Williams as Turiddu and Santuzza and Pagliacci with Tudor Davies and Beatrice Gough as Canio and Nedda at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Cardiff. These two operas have since become a staple of our repertory, appearing several times throughout the years, most recently in Summer 2016.