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Giovanni Verga & Cavalleria Rusticana
by Beniamino Inserra


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Self-portrait photograph of Giovanni Verga.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, felt alienated.

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.

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© 2001 Beniamino Inserra