Verismo in its Historical Context
The turbulent winds of change that surrounded the turn of the nineteenth century seemed to touch every aspect of civilization. The period from the 1880’s to the 1920’s witnessed immense social and political upheaval, encompassing the beginnings of the Automotive Age, the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the emergence of Italian Nationalism. America became a player on the world stage.
Culturally, it was a time of tremendous change. Consider that during the last decade between 1890 and 1900, all of the following major world figures were contemporaries:
Never before or since has there been such an outpouring of creativity on all fronts.
In the fine arts, the Arts and Crafts movement (called the Æsthetic Movement in England) began as rebellion against what was perceived as shoddy mass production, returning to the values of natural materials and pride in workmanship. Championed by William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite painters, their inspiration sprang from the observation and re-creation of the natural world around us. Closely allied was Art Nouveau, beginning in Paris and soon seen all over Europe and, to a lesser degree, in America. It is most identifiable by its use of the sinuous lines and whiplash curves found in the organic shapes of plants. This fashionable style, although short lived, permeated the upper echelons of applied art – Rene Lalique’s jewelry and glass, Liberty’s textiles in London, Alfonso Mucha’s colorful posters of Sarah Bernhardt, as well as Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass and iridescent glassware. The style reached its apotheosis in the architecture of Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona—the phantasmagorical Palau Guell and his incredible Cathedral—La Sagrada Familia. Seemingly disparate, they shared a common inspiration from the wonders of the natural world.
Performance art was similarly affected. The classic world of ballet was assaulted from a number of fronts. American dancer Loie Fuller created a sensation in Paris, whirling in myriad layers of diaphanous silk under constantly changing colored lights. She inspired a number of sculptors, as seen by the popular bronze sculptures of her very individual art.
This zeitgeist of naturalism appears in the visual world, reflected in impressionistic works of Van Gogh, Rodin, Monet, and Debussy—bold explorations of new territories in defiance of the status quo. Concurrent with these advances were the opera composers linked in musical annals as Verismo –encompassing two allied groups: The Giovane Scuola, consisting of Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Cilea, Giordano and Franchetti and the Generazione dell’ Ottanta ( literally Generation of the Eighties)—those composers most of whom were born around the 1880s —Montemezzi, Alfano (who completed the unfinished score of Turandot after Puccini’s death), Zandonai, Respighi and others. These two Italian schools of thought were identified with what came to be called the Verismo style, although its spirit is also evident in a number of French and German compositions of the period.
Verismo translates literally as Realism, encompassing an effort to break out of the artificiality and constraints of the Grand Opera holding forth in the opera houses of the period. The rigid structure and formality of the classic opera seria had evolved from the early days of Monteverdi and Lully, based on characters drawn from mythology and the annals of history—often royal, always larger than life. These Grand Operas at their zenith in the first half of the nineteenth century were monumental works with no spoken dialogue —four or five acts with spectacular effects, magnificent scenic design, larger than life emotions, and huge casts that filled the stage – gigantic works like Rossini’s Maometto II, Berlioz’ Les Troyens, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Verdi’s Aïda and Don Carlos, and everything by Wagner, whose enormous influence was felt everywhere.
An interesting side note: All grand opera written for the Paris Opéra was contractually required to begin the third act with a twenty minute ballet.
By contrast, the Verismo composers created operas based upon real human emotions felt by lesser souls – a slice of life if you will –holding the mirror of human experience up to the audience, to share in the reality of existence and its multiple facets. In general, the stories were based upon contem-porary texts rather than historical or classical sources.
Musical conventions of the time dictated that singers face the audience and sing beautiful, perfect tones –literally bel canto. Here is the age-old question: Which is more important – the words or the music? This has been argued for centuries, and has been the subject of several fascinating works, such as Richard Strauss’s Capriccio.
There is a fine line to be drawn in performance. Donizetti’s Lucia, for instance, the classic bel canto heroine, goes mad in an endless fioratura series of trills and roulades, yet she’s nutty as a fruitcake! (Modern productions have evolved this bel canto role A. C. (After Callas) layering a more convincing naturalistic performance on the bel canto bride—a backward bow to the influence of Verismo on its ancestors.)
This was the musical world at the time when Verismo composers such as Mascagni, Puccini, Cilèa, Catalani, Giordano and so many others reached their creative maturity.
Teatro Grattacielo’s mission is the re-examination of undiscovered gems from these exciting works of the relatively recent past which seamlessly meld dramatic texts with incomparable music in the context of reality.
Gone are the posturing strutting set pieces, strung out in line on the stage facing the audience. Here is naturalism, born in the time of Strindberg and Ibsen, the tremendous theatricality and dramatic intensity of D’Annunzio and David Belasco. They are derived from sources as diverse as the poor artists and poets of La Bohème, I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana, contrasting with the exoticism of Iris and Madama Butterfly –each seen with psychological insight peering unflinchingly into the soul of every character, the music and drama fused into one.
Here is the white-hot intensity of passion and vendetta driven by emotion, heedless of danger, propelled by magnificent music. We see Tosca, ablaze with fury or Andrea Chenier, the poet swept up by the tide of the French Revolution. The vocal intensity of these roles choose veracity over the classic bel canto –the beautiful note –that completely involves the audience in the unforgettable unique experience that is Verismo at its best.
The range of subjects is amazing—within this framework, we find the recklessness of Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, gambling for the life of her lover; Fedora’s jealousy; Suor Angelica’s ecstasy and salvation –but in each, the thrill of an unforgettable performance.
Giacomo Puccini is certainly the Zeus of Verismo’s Pantheon, but he was by no means alone. No fool he, Puccini had an eye for the sure thing. Like Andrew Lloyd Webber in our own time, using The Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard, Puccini was not above mining material that had a proven track record. He even revisited the heroine of a successful French opera, Massenet’s Manon for Manon Lescaut. Tosca, one of his greatest triumphs. began her perennial popularity with the enormously successful Sardou play, performed by Sarah Bernhardt more than a thousand times on stage before Puccini wrote a note! (In fact, Bernhardt’s amputated leg was the result of having broken it from a disastrous climactic leap as Tosca off the Castel Sant’Angelo!)
Puccini’s La Bohème, which premièred February 1, 1896, is perhaps the most popular opera in America, but the libretto was poached from another composer’s territory. Puccini beat Leoncavallo to the punch by slightly more than a year, both using Henri Murger’s same Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Leoncavallo’s La Bohème premièred May 6, 1897. Although it hews more closely to the original, it was never able to capture audiences captivated by Puccini’s classic.
These things are not meant to diminish the genius of Maestro Puccini or the stature of these immortal works. Rather, it is the serious purpose of Teatro Grattacielo to acquaint our audience with the joy and surprise of discovering other brilliant Verismo operas which somehow, by accident or by design, have been lost in the trajectory of more famous works.
Puccini realized that no matter how beautiful the score, the characters and the story made the ultimate success or failure of the opera. Through the years, this quality of passion, of recklessness, has distinguished Verismo. Who can forget Maria Callas’ performance as Tosca or the recordings of the Queen of Verismo, Magda Olivero.
Often, what the artist brings to the role is as important as what they can derive from it. And there is no ‘One size fits all’ rule. Beverly Sills was acknowledged as one of the most skilled singing actresses. She once admitted that preparing to play one of her most memorable dramatic roles, she based her performance as Queen Elizabeth on Bette Davis in the 1939 film Elizabeth and Essex.
Maria Callas on the other hand, approached Tosca differently. In a television interview, this diva playing a diva stated flatly that when playing an historical character or one taken from other media, she did not consult original sources or contemporary texts. To paraphrase, she said: “It must all be in the libretto, in the music. I take my performance only from what was written –if it is not in the score, I do not presume to create another character.”
Today, we are bombarded by new interpretations of the same few ‘bread and butter’ operas that form the basic repertoire of opera houses all over the world. With an entire season of seats to fill, these reliable warhorses are trotted out year after year; management decisions often dictated by economics rather than musical merit. The present emphasis on the director often results in novel (and sometimes downright alarming) insights.
But for us it’s all about the music. Teatro Grattacielo has the express goal of expanding the opera experience for discerning cognoscenti and adventurous music lovers. Join us in exploring these sleeping beauties from the vast Verismo repertory. Hear these operas presented without compromise – the finest soloists, chorus and orchestra, performing brilliantly as they were meant to be heard by the composers.
Make up your own mind. We may not give you the opportunity to hum along with Opera’s Top Ten Hits, but we will expand your musical horizons with the most exciting performances of a lifetime.
Maybe you haven’t heard your favorite opera yet!
A Word about our Name…
We welcome your participation
As a not-for-profit company, we rely almost completely on tax-deductible contributions -from individuals and sponsorship from foundations and corporate sources (under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. We hope that you can contribute to our efforts. In these days of financial peril.
Thank you for your support!