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Of all the great works in the grand tradition of Italian opera, probably none is
more beloved than the famous Cavalleria Rusticana (literally "Rustic
Chivalry") by Pietro Mascagni. A musical melodrama of pride, passion
and pathos sometimes equalled but never surpassed, it is unlike most other
masterpieces of its genre. Unlike the settings of other grand examples of
classical lyric opera, the location of the original story is not Paris,
nor Rome nor Pharoanic Egypt but a small, nearly-forgotten mountain village
on the island of Sicily that, were it not for this musical tragedy, would
have been forgotten altogether. The town is Vizzini, in the province of
Catania, and the author of the original story was its most famous native
son, Giovanni Verga.
To reach a more profound understanding of this great Sicilian writer
of the realist school, and the people he wrote about, one must have at least
an introductory view of his roots and home. Historically, the town can be
traced back to the time of Cicero and Pliny as "Bidis Oppidum."
The Syracusean village had prehistoric roots and was successively settled
by the ancient Siculi, Greeks and then the Romans. The Arabs and Normans
also left their traces, and when King William II of Sicily married Joan
Plantagenet of England the town's Count Robert "de Bizini" represented
the territory as an invited guest at the wedding.
When the Aragonese came from Spain the village fell under the jurisdiction
of Syracuse, and then the feudal control of the Blasco Alagona and Chiaramonte
families. It later came under the direct royal authority of the united Spanish
crowns of Isabella and Ferdinand, twenty years before the discovery of the
New World. It remained so until 1629, when the residents decided to pay
King Philip IV of Spain rather than be sold out to another feudal lord.
The royal promise of independence was not respected, and in 1649 the public
rights were ceded to Niccolò Schittino as Duke of Vizzini.
In 1840, the year of Verga's birth in a frazione (hamlet) outside
Vizzini, the entire island was under the rule of the Neapolitan Bourbons.
If Palermo, Catania and Syracuse were now considered remote, what could
Vizzini hope for? Indeed, the political upheavals that began in 1848 in
Palermo and spread throughout the Italian peninsula and Europe touched Vizzini
not at all. And when in 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi and his followers invaded
the Mediterranean island, laying the foundation for the establishment of
the Kingdom of Italy, Vizzini was left untouched.
The young Giovanni Verga left Vizzini and Catania in 1869 and traveled
north to Florence and later to Milan to pursue a literary career which,
unfortunately, never flourished. That is, as long as he wrote stories about
the northern bourgeoisie --a society in which he, as a rustic Sicilian,
Added to this was the economic and intellectual neglect inflicted on
the island and its inhabitants by the arrogant northern Italians. We can
understand why Verga turned away in disillusionment from Italian nationalism
and rediscovered his Sicilian roots by realistically expressing the local
dialect, the local proverbs and more: The hot-blooded, passionate Sicilian
attachment to his land and his people. Yet, at the same time, he did not
conceal the Sicilians' defects and the prejudices that could exist alongside
their virtues. Verga eventually returned to Catania to live and write.
Out of this milieu sprang the masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana, a story
that, if local folklore is to be believed, really took place in Vizzini
before the time of Verga. A visit to the town will take you to the places
where the events of this tragic tale were lived.
In "Rustic Chivalry" we meet the local "tough guy,"
Alfio, well-to-do teamster, sure of himself and his prowess, yet somehow
living an illusion. There's his flirtatious, and probably bored, wife,
Lola, the town beauty, using her feminine charms for her own selfish gratification.
Then there is the young, hot-blooded Turiddu --strong, virile, yet also
naive and childlike-- and his wronged fiancée, the virtuous Santuzza,
who is seduced and abandoned but ever faithful and hopeful for the return
of Turiddu to her. In this simple yet revealing "fable" we can
experience all the vices, hypocrisies, prejudices and, yes, virtues of rural
Sicily at the time of Verga.
And finally, we can see the self-destructive tragedy of passionate characters
that is symbolic of the Sicilian people themselves. To be sure, Verga's
story poses no great political or social question, merely raw human emotions
and folly among a small group of ordinary people in the mountains of eastern
Sicily. It is a drama that could be replayed countless times over the course
of the centuries. For this it is the eternal saga of a people immortalized
every time an opera house in Milan, Rome, Sydney or New York performs Cavalleria
Rusticana for us.
About the Author: Opera-lover Beniamino Inserra lives in Palermo, but his family has lived in Vizzini --Verga country-- for around five centuries.