Mascagni composed many operas but never matched the success of Cavalleria rusticana. Based on Verga's verismo subject, the score was submitted by Mascagni's wife as an entry for Sonzogno's contest for one-act operas in 1888. The resulting performance at the Costanzi, Rome on 17 May 1890 was a smash hit and instantly rocketed Mascagni to international stardom.
Verismo was a literary style that featured contemporary rural characters, often impoverished, whose passions ran strongly; violence was a regular consequence. Such was the success of Cavelleria rusticana that verismo subjects dominated opera for the next decade.
Particularly popular are Santuzza's aria Voi lo sapete and the drinking song Viva il vino. The central orchestral Intermezzo has also become a favourite in the concert hall.
Pietro Mascagni was born in Livorno on 7 December 1863. He began studying music at thirteen, and entered the Milan Conservatory in 1881 with the financial backing of Count Florestanto de Larderel Fora. There he studied with Ponchielli and Saladino, and lived with Puccini. The strict rules of the conservatory were not to Mascagni's liking however, and he left to be a conductor, touring with various opera companies until settling down in Cerignola, where he taught at a philharmonic society.
In 1889 his opera Cavalleria Rusticana opened to great acclaim, and L'Amico Fritz and I Rantzau took his fame further across Europe, playing in Paris, Vienna and London. Success followed success, with operas Iris (1898) and Amica (1905), the lyrical opera Lodoletta, and operetta Si (1917). Most were in the verismo style which Mascagni founded - operatic realism with a regional flavour, focusing on often vulgar situations in the life of ordinary people. They often involved passionate conflicts, the music following the dramatic action to bring out the emotion in the story.
Mascagni died on 2 August 1945. During his later years he had been a supporter of the fascist party, and wrote Nerone (1932) about Mussolini. Despite the taint this gave his reputation, it has had little effect on the success of Cavelleria Rusticana, his most famous work.