Tre Artisti Senza Pretese
All three of these artists have in their work a deeply sensitive appreciation for Sicily and its rich souled people. Their works express living impressions of the island and its inhabitants with an artistic honesty often termed verismo, which is without excessive show and cuts down to the bone with truthfulness.
Verga was born in 1840 of aristocratic, Castilian, parents who owned farms at Vizzini near Catania. Formally educated in Florence and Milan, he chose to live most of his life in the land of his heart, Sicily. And it was there that he found the substance for his stories.
His stories are written in an unpretentious way, the prose evoking the straightforwardness true to his characters. Perhaps this is why his sentences are direct. His story “Across the Sea” displays this honest terseness in the descriptions of the two lovers; “He” from Sicily and “She” from some big mainland city. That they don’t really have names focuses our attention all the more on their yearning for each other.
In their affirmations of love, they yearn and promise to be together always, but every year they drift further apart. They possess only desires for each other, their promises, and memories—nostalgic recordi. This story is a “sweet sadness”. It portrays how “He” and “She” have only the power of their yearning, and they are conquered by those sweet-sad memories that in reality are they themselves. The story is like a poem in evoking their pleasantly tormented souls.
D. H. Lawrence translated “Across the Sea” and other Verga stories and there are times when reading them that I can scarcely distinguish the Verga voice from Lawrence’s voice, and yet both artists retain integrity. They understood each other in substance and in writing.
Lawrence lived in Sicily at Fontana Vecchia near Taormina from 1920 to 1922. He adored Sicily, its people, and its chthonic essence. He fused all of this into a poem named “Snake”. It is like Verga’s stories; a poem of blood consciousness, earthiness, and the pettiness of over educated humans.
But it is Lawrence’s 1925 translation of Verga’s short stories “Novelle Rusticane”, which he called “Little Novels” that Lawrence put Verga into the English literary world. And again, this was because the two men understood each other’s artistic purpose. I believe that Lawrence loved the encounters of the heart in Verga’s work: despair at the loss of a lover, the rawness of betrayal, the hard, back breaking work of people “who never had a dollar.”
Look at the photos on the internet of Verga’s tenants, and you will see what I mean—look into their faces—we see them in Verga’s stories, and Lawrence alludes to these faces in his introduction to his translation.
Pietro Mascagni wrote his one act opera based upon Verga’s 1883 play “Cavalleria Rusticana”.
Then, he felt it was no good, so he put it away. His wife found it and sent it in (unbeknownst to him) to the publisher Sonzogno’s one act opera competition. It won! Mascagni had transformed Verga’s “Cavalleria” into an immortal opera of the same name. It was performed in Rome in 1890, and rapidly became a great success.
I love the opera’s opening as Turiddu is heard singing a “Siciliana” in Sicilian, a yearning praise of his love Lola, “O Lola, ch’ai di latti la cammisa,/ si bianca e russa comu la cerasa.” All the action occurs during Easter Celebrations (based at Verga’s own Vizzini), a fitting time for Santuzza’s being betrayed by Turiddu.
Santuzza is so terribly wounded (she is carrying Turiddu’s child) by this betrayal that she in turn betrays Turiddu to Alfio, Lola’s husband, and that is the spark that ignites the insults and knife duel after which a peasant girl shrieks, “Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu!” Betrayal is the ultimate subject.
But this tragedy is all foreshadowed in the earlier love duet between Turiddu and Santuzza in which Santuzza yearningly begs for Turridu’s love, and he denies it throwing her to the ground. At that point, Santuzza is truly one of Verga’s “i vinti”. Santuzza is the conquered, the vanquished, who has no refuge; neither her lover, Mama Lucia who is Turiddu’s mother, the towns people, nor the Church. Her soul, her anima, has been lacerated much as is Turiddu’s body in the knife duel.
I am, of course, a romantic, and because I can’t get Santuzza’s yearning voice out of my mind I feel most for her. She is like Puccini’s lovely heroines. So, I suggest listening to the Santuzza-Turiddu love duet and see what you think. Here are three fine recordings: Gigli, Rasa, Becchi from Naxos; Corelli, Simionato, Guelfi from Allegro; Domingo, Scotto, Elvira from RCA.