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Mascagni had already had an operetta produced in Cremona and had been conducting opera for several seasons when he decided to enter a competition in 1888 for new one-act operas. He had seen Giovanni Verga’s hit play Cavalleria rusticana (Country Chivalry) shortly after it had opened in 1884, and Mascagni now commissioned a libretto based on the play. This was completed in December 1888 and six months later Mascagni had his opera finished. It won the competition, and was first staged in Rome in May 1890.

This was perhaps the first opera to draw on the verismo literary movement, of which Verga was a major figure. Verismo opera placed an emphasis on true-to-life, regional characteristics and a quick narrative pace. Cavalleria rusticana takes place on Easter Sunday in a Sicilian village. Turiddu, a young peasant, has seduced and then abandoned Santuzza in favor of Lola, who is married to Alfio. Santuzza pleads with Turiddu to return to her; when he spurns her, she tells Alfio about Turiddu and Lola.

At this point the village square is empty, and the drama moves to the orchestra with this Intermezzo, played with the curtain up. The tune is based on a hymn heard earlier from within the village church, and its setting here suggests both the peace of country living and the intense individual feelings of the principals. It closes the Easter ceremony and foreshadows the coming tragedy. Turiddu and Lola come out of the church and enter his mother’s inn, where Alfio challenges him. After asking his mother to take care of Santuzza, Turiddu goes off-stage to meet Alfio, who kills him.