This past easter I watched Cavalleria Rusticana for the dozeneth time, twentieth time, I lost count. It’s set in old world Sicily at easter (which is why I chose to see it then). The opera is based on a short story turned into a one-act play by Giovanni Verga. I enjoyed it, as I always do.
Turridu loves Lola. He goes to war and when he comes back she is married to Alfio. To make her jealous he starts up with her neighbor Santuzza. Lola sees Turridu coming out of her house and becomes jealous. Turridu starts an affair with Lola.
Turridu wants Lola to see him leave Santuzza’s house, but he didn’t think about it happening the other way. One day Santuzza, now a used and spurned woman (and a fallen woman) sees Turridu leave Lola’s house while Alfio is out of town on business.
Santuzza confronts Turridu, threatening him to stop seeing Lola, marry her as he promised, or she’ll tell everyone. Turridu spurns her again. In a fit of rage Santuzza tells Alfio, who threatens to kill them both. Immediately Santuzza regrets what she has done.
Later Turridu is leading the town in a toast. It seems Turridu is a popular guy. Alfio come up and Turridu offers him some wine and to be a part of the toast for joy and happiness. Alfio refuses. Insult. Turridu takes the glass of wine he had offered Alfio and throws it on the ground at his feet. Another insult.
The woman and children go inside and many of the men leave as well, knowing things may get ugly. Turridu asks Alfio if he has anything to say to him. In a grand gesture of mercy, Alfio says he doesn’t and that he and Turridu should hug it out. While in the embrace Turridu bites Alfio’s ear hard enough to draw blood. This is a challenge to a duel. The two men go out of town and have a knife fight. Alfio kills Turridu.
Hero Or Villain?
As I watched my Cav again, I thought, Turridu is a jerk! He starts up an pre-marital affair with Santuzza, even promising to marry her (a lie) just to start up an adulterous affair with Lola. Even after Alfio passes on revenge Turridu still challenges him to a duel, which is the prerogative of the aggrieved spouse.
When he dies, we are all a bit sad, and I’m not sure why. Is it because the opera ends with Turiddu’s mother crying? Not really because we, like all of his on-stage Sicilian neighbors, really like Turridu for some reason.
Turridu is not some anti-hero like Michael Corleone. He is a genuine protagonist. In the recent production I saw, Turridu was performed by Placido Domingo. He doesn’t play bit parts. He is always the last one to bow after the show (unless the protagonist is a soprano).
Turridu has the actions of a villain, but the placement in the story of a hero. The answer doesn’t come in looking poorly on Alfio. He’s no bad guy, and Turridu is not the good guy just because he is a foil to him. It’s not just his likability because there are plenty of smiling, charming villains in literature.
To Tell The Truth
I only see one answer to this problem: Verismo. There arose an Italian school of art at the end of the 1800s known as verismo, which means real. Verismo covered literature, painting, and music, particularly opera. It strove for absolute realism, a genuine slice-of-life snapshot of what life is really like, warts and all. Verismo does not try to be pretty any more than it tries to be ugly.
Turridu is a jerk because that is what he is really like. Verismo does not go for sympathetic heroes, but nothing more than the way it is with no commentary one way or the other. The verist leaves that up to the reader.
There is a great deal of value in verismo art today. In fact, it would be a wonderful style to learn, if for nothing else than for practices and exercises. In verismo you go for realism, and nothing else. Your main character isn’t necessarily a good guy and his antagonist doesn’t have to be a bad guy. Verismo helps you pay attention to details and only the relevant ones. Verismo may be real, but it isn’t florid.
Not only could your character development get a good workout with verist writing, but also your plot is stripped down. There is nothing extra in verismo. Maybe the best contribution of learning verismo is that it chops off the author’s nose if it starts sticking itself into the text. Your writing should be sufficient to show the world how you view the human condition. It shouldn’t need your sermonizing.
Listen to some verismo opera, read some verismo literature, look at some verismo painting. Think of all of the other works of fine art you have ever come across. Write something and, as the kids say today, keep it real!
Tell me your thoughts on verismo. Let me know all about it in the Comment section below. Also, if you enjoyed this article you should share it with other writers.