On this day in 1863, the great composer Pietro Mascagni was born. He is primarily known for four operas: Le maschere, Iris, L’amico Fritz, and Cavalleria rusticana. The last of these literally revolutionized opera — at least in Italy. It more or less created verismo opera — a more realistic approach to opera storytelling. For example, in Cavalleria rusticana, the hero comes home from military service to find that his girlfriend has married another man. So he seduces another woman to make his ex jealous. This works, so he casts the woman aside and takes up with the now married ex. Her husband finds out, and kills him in a duel. Rightly so: what a jerk!
Musically, I’m not that fond of Cavalleria rusticana. It is very much in the Romantic tradition. But Mascagni was still developing — he was only in his mid-20s when he wrote the opera. Just two years later, he wrote the charming L’amico Fritz. It is still performed, but I wonder that it isn’t performed more — especially compared to Cavalleria rusticana. Here is “Cherry Duet” — probably the most famous number from it:
Later still came Iris. It is a wonderful three act tragedy set in Japan. But apparently, the opera world only has room for one three act tragedy set in Japan, so Madama Butterfly is the only one that is performed. What you can most hear in it is a greatly expanded harmonic palette. But that was something that Mascagni was known for throughout his career: very creative use of harmony. He was also know — celebrated — for was his clear and forceful melodic lines. It is surprising to me that he isn’t a bigger deal in the world of opera.
Here is the Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana, which is supremely beautiful:
Happy birthday Pietro Mascagni!