Verismo, by its very definition, means truth. Contrary to operas that explored stories of nobility and mythology, the verismo movement that started in 19th century Italy sought to explore realistic stories about everyday people. And one such story became the premiere example of verismo opera: Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni.
Based on a play by Giovanni Verga, the opera takes place on Easter Sunday in a small Sicilian village. Turiddu returns home from the army to find out that the woman he had fallen in love with, Lola, married Alfio. To spite Lola, Turiddu seduces Santuzza, yet he ultimately rekindles his relationship with Lola. Jealousy ensues, culminating in a fatal duel between Turiddu and Alfio.
Cavalleria rusticana has a storied connection to Chicago. The familiar Intermezzo — most notably used in the opening sequence of Martin Scorsese’s film Raging Bull — was programmed in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s second-ever concert on October 19, 1891. Mascagni even conducted a full production of the opera in Chicago during his 1902 tour of the United States.
A concert version of Cavalleria rusticana will be presented in three performances running February 6-8 at Symphony Center in downtown Chicago. Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti will conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the CSO Chorus, and a roster of international artists.
In a recent interview backstage at Symphony Center, WFMT talked with mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili (Santuzza), tenor Piero Pretti (Turiddu), and baritone Luca Salsi (Alfio) about approaching verismo opera, their collaboration with Muti and the CSO, and the relevance of Mascagni’s opera today.
WFMT: Cavalleria rusticana is one of the classic verismo operas. What are your respective approaches to verismo roles?
Anita Rachvelishvili: Vocally speaking, it’s always a hard opera to sing because there are a lot of emotions, a lot of different dynamics. You have to be very careful with the technique. It gives you all of the possibilities to show your voice from the low to high notes, using everything you have. I love it, because you can express yourself.
Luca Salsi: I agree with Anita about the voice that we have to use in verismo. [In Cavalleria,] you can share more of the emotion, and with the emotion, you go with the voice.
Piero Pretti: The orchestra plays exactly the same music as the singers [in this opera]. You have to really put all of your energy into it. In Verdi, the orchestra can play another melody. But here, it needs [your] whole voice.
WFMT: That unity with the voice and orchestra is important, because the opera is so compact in length. Pacing is very important. How does Maestro Muti set the pace for this opera?
Salsi: In all the work that Maestro Muti does, not just in verismo, he tries to find the truth of the voice and in the notes of the composer. In verismo, the name is literally “truth” — vero is “true.” You have to show the real emotion, the reality of your living and singing in that moment. The music helps you a lot here. You have to be more of an actor in Verdi.
WFMT: Whereas in other operas you can have extensive musical passages about one idea or situation, in Cavalleria, it’s almost in real time.
Salsi: That’s why it’s short.
Rachvelishvili: If you really want to get out all of your emotions, you can. Of course, [Muti] follows the score and respects the composer’s wishes. But you can actually tell the difference of how he directs Verdi’s music — you have to control the sound of the orchestra and the voice. Here, it’s a like a huge wave that takes you in.
Salsi: What Verdi writes in three pages of an aria is what Mascagni writes in four bars.
Pretti: It’s a different way to express your feelings – the same sentiment in different forms.
WFMT: Cavalleria was praised internationally after its 1890 premiere in Rome, yet the opera was looked down upon and not seen as important in the mid-20th century. It’s certainly praised today. What changed that interpretation?
Salsi: It changed when someone like Maestro Muti started to conduct something like this. It got rid of that tradition. This also happened with Verdi. It’s so powerful how [Maestro Muti] conducts. He always finds the right point, doing the notes that the composer wrote without any artificial things.
Rachvelishvili: Maestro Muti has such a respect for the score.
Pretti: And the voice.
Rachvelishvili: Yes — the composer writes the music in their mind, and it’s very logical. Rarely, like almost never, do you have conductors who respect the score. You find yourself in the middle of a cast, trying to be correct. Maestro Muti is definitely one of the last amazing conductors that we have.
Pretti: I’m lucky to sing my first Cavalleria with him in the right way. [Pretti and Salsi are giving their role debuts in this concert version of Cavalleria].
WFMT: Cavalleria rusticana has quite an interesting performance history in Chicago, and here we are revisiting this work today. Why is it still relevant to us?
Rachvelishvili: It’s a story about human tragedy, about love and pain. We all have that. It doesn’t matter how many centuries will go and pass. Nothing has changed.
Pretti: It’s the beauty of the music and the brutality of the situation.
Salsi: People who would never listen to opera can listen to the Intermezzo and say, “Wow, it’s beautiful.” You feel something.
Mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, tenor Piero Pretti, and baritone Luca Salsi will perform in a concert version of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana with Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and CSO Chorus. Performances run February 6-8 at Symphony Center. For ticketing and information, visit cso.org.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.