Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

What Is Verismo?

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Verismo (trans. Realism) was and remains the brand affixed to a style adopted by a generation of Italian composers of opera from 1890 to the first decades of the twentieth century. The movement was an outgrowth of late nineteenth-century French literary Realism and Naturalism and their expression in the fiction of the Sicilian Giovanni Verga, infused as it was with local color, the regional vernacular, and the quotidian of impoverished folk.

This long-standing brand, however handy, is widely acknowledged as problematic. True, its several attributes adhere easily to Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890, see our posts of April 17, April 23, and May 2, 2015), the first and emblematic opera of the manner. Based on a Verga short story, the rural southern Italian characters and locale, the rapidity of action and violent denouement, carry the signs of the new style. But Cavalleria’s successors, with the exception of Pagliacci (1892), Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s short opera often paired with Mascagni’s one-acter, rarely subscribe to the plots and sites of Realism/Naturalism. In fact, veristic operas fit uncomfortably under a single narrative umbrella. Verismo applies fittingly to the plebeian mezzogiorno of Cavalleria and Pagliacci, but not at all well to the ancien régime of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893), to the classist orientalism of his Madama Butterfly (1904), or to the contemporary European nobility of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora (1898).

Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (1902) provides us another salient example. This title, too, strays far from the geographic, temporal, and socio-economic boundaries of Verismo’s foundational meaning. The opera’s libretto first situates the drama of the historical 18th-century tragedienne, Adrienne Lecouvreur, backstage at the Comédie Française. A sumptuous ballroom is the arena for the Act Three face-off between Adriana and the Principessa di Bouillon, her rival in love. As you will see and hear in this excerpt from a 2000 La Scala performance, the composer melds a neo-Classical ballet pastiche and his leading lady's spoken monologue from Racine's 
Phèdre with a contrasting orchestral comment and violent vocal interjections typical of Verismo. Adriana is Daniela Dessì; the Principessa is Olga Borodina.

A far less ambiguous label than Verismo is la giovane scuola (the young school), a contemporary term that defined the group of these post-Verdi Italian composers: Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Cilea,
Umberto Giordano, and most significantly, Puccini. They favored the short aria, the arioso. To the relief of singers and record companies, Verismo embraced excerptable pieces designed to invite applause and timed to the capacity of early records. The two-part structure of the bel canto aria, the slow cavatina capped by the fast cabaletta embellished with intricate fioritura and stratospheric high notes, and the grand statements of Verdi’s late period gave way to a shorter-breathed and shorter-ranged solo. Loris’s declaration of love in Act Two of Giordano’s Fedora, “Amor ti vieta” (Love forbids), lasts less than two minutes. The piece calls for a range under an octave and no agility at all. Mario Lanza’s way with this memorable melody turns the arioso into a showstopper.

The greater informality in musical structure advanced by la giovane scuola was joined to passages of colloquial, quasi-conversational exchange between and among characters. In the final minutes of Act Two of La Fanciulla del West, Puccini provides an unforgettable instance of just such rhetoric. In Gold-Rush California, Minnie plays poker for the life of her beloved Dick Johnson. Her opponent is the lustful sheriff Jack Rance. Puccini invests everyday vocabulary and brief utterances with the high drama of desperate love.

Here is a sample of the rapid-fire dialogue:

Rance: I’m ready. You cut.
Minnie: Two hands out of three.
R: How many cards?
M: Two.
R: But what about him makes you love him so much?
M: What do you see in me? What have you got?
R: A king.
M: A king.
R: Jack.
M: Queen.
R: You won. Play the next hand.
     Two aces and a pair.
M: Nothing

At the end of the act, Minnie, who has cheated at cards in a last-ditch effort to save Johnson, revels in her triumph.

Here is the poker scene from a November 1982 performance at Covent Garden. Carol Neblett, the recently deceased American soprano, is Minnie; Rance is the Italian baritone Silvano Carroli.

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