Article by James Naughtie

One night in Rome, just before dawn in the dying days of the nineteenth century, the Castel Saint’ Angelo on the banks of the Tiber was witness to a strange sight.  It was Giacomo Puccini himself on the battlements, waiting for the sun to rise.  He wanted to hear the chorus of bells that would signal the start of the new day, sounding from churches across the city.  For Tosca, he wanted the sound of real bells.

Why?  Opera’s world is the stage, not the real place outside the theatre which the audience has left for a few hours.  Did it matter that the fatal bells should be replicas, or, for that matter, that the shepherd boy’s song that opens Act III should use the characteristic musical intervals of a folk song from the Italian countryside?  It did.  For the kind of immediacy that Puccini sought, that certain raw worldly feeling, it had to be done.  This wasn’t just an effort to import some familiarity into his opera, to touch a chord or two in his audience, but to let them breathe the atmosphere that swirled around his story.  Half a century earlier, we can assume that Puccini wouldn’t have bothered.  And that explains verismo.

In Holland Park this year you can see operatic styles that mark change.  When Donizetti wrote Lucia di Lammermoor he was working in a tradition that hadn’t embraced the late century obsession with the ‘real’.  Of course he wanted to conjure up a picture of Scotland, but it was not a rough and raw place.  This was the Scotland that had been flashed on Europe’s eye by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, all glimmering  lakes and blood soaked glens where high romance seemed at home in the mist.  The emotions of Lucia and Edgardo are genuine enough but they are in a style from which some theaters in France and Italy were to try to escape a few decades later, or at least they wanted to adapt to a mood of a new realism.

The opera that blazed the trail also takes its place in the Holland Park season,  Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.  It is one of the great bits of operatic history, and the keystone of the verismo style.  Where proper subjects had once been the high and mighty, affairs of state, the kinds of personal and political relations between great powers and across the seas that are the stuff of Verdi’s Don Carlos, for example, the right focus was now to be the doings of ordinary people.  They were to speak in their own voices, their emotions were to be natural.

By the end of the 1880s, when Mascagni was at work on Cavalleria Rusticana, things were ready to break out in France, the positivist philosophers had been arguing for years that it was the duty of modern society to break away from myth and religion see the world for what it was a collection of objects and facts, all of which could be observed by those with eyes to see.  Through novels and in the theatre this became part of a commitment to the natural, and for those putting drama on the stage it seemed right to express it in ways which emphasized the world that the audience knew, not a world into which you were inviting them to escape.

This became the tradition of verismo.  Though there is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ verismo opera – how could anything be a pure representative of one style without looking like dead art? –  Cavalleria Rusticana stands as the example of how opera could be seen in an entirely different way.

The hallmark of a certain grittiness, Mascagni doesn’t clutter up his short opera.  He makes the set piece numbers stand on their own.  Deliberate simplicity is the key.  Not only do characters seem to behave with the simple emotions that we’d associate with real life, they are themselves inhabitants of a whole world that is recognisable.  Everyone at the first night in Rome believed that they what they were seeing was the peasant life of Sicily as it was being lived at the moment.  Whether or not they were right was quite beside the point.  They had confidence.

Opera, after all, is about belief.  In Tom Sutcliffe’s fine book on modern production he argues the case for the best of our producers as creators and sustainers of a belief in our time, often removed from the trappings of the reality we see around us.  The shock of the Chereau Ring cycle in the seventies was the beginning of a period of boldness and imagination among producers which produced, among the many rubbishy examples which we can all picture in our minds, some of the most creative stagecraft of our time.  Verismo in its day was doing something similar in a way that could hardly be more different and by means which seem to us today to be touchingly cosy.

We are talking simply about characters who behave like people, about the places that seem real.  You do not have to know anything about precisely what it felt like to live in an eighteen century house to enjoy The Marriage of Figaro, for that matter you don’t need to know much about ancient Egypt to wallow in Aida (though it may help).  With the verismo style it is different.  Instead of that famous disbelief which is suspended for the performance, the old romantic edict, the power is supposed to come from the fact that belief doesn’t require an effort.

You can see why.  By the end of the nineteenth century, a wonderful Italian tradition had long since reached its highest point with Verdi.  Scholars will always argue about the right explanations for the great line from Rossini through Donizetti and Bellini and Verdi himself.  Those of us who sit opera houses know it when we see it, the unmistakable sound of romantic genius.  Then, frankly, the fashion changed.  After Cav with Pag still to come, the Italian market was flooded with low-life operas, most of which we have never heard and never will hear.  Perhaps it is just as well, but they tell a story.  The task was not now to delve into the great historical tales for inspiration but to find it in the street.

But of course it was a trick.  I remember once visiting a theatre in Verona which dates from the sixteenth century and hearing an aged guide, who had an air of fine Dickensian decrepitude about him, describe the stage set which faced us.  It was a painted backdrop which had used perspective to give a rather over-the-top impression of depth and distance.  To the audience these were the streets of Rome he declared.  Then he paused and delivered the punch-line, gesticulating at the familiar scene on the backdrop which he had known since he was a boy.  ‘But in reality they are the streets of Vicenza’.  They were, and they weren’t.  They were as fake as if they’d been a picture of the Rome they purported to represent.  But ‘in reality’ … that reality is operatic artifice, and verismo is as good at it as any seventeenth century composer or Richard Strauss and the German romantics centuries later.  It is just a different kind of trickery

It works, of course, because we want it to.  The point about opera is that, in Susan Sontag’s words, it always aspires to ecstasy.  That can be produced in many ways.  By a dreamy princess on a misty lake, by a deranged lover in a blood stained wedding dress, by a figure symbolising ‘art’ singing in a kind of philosophical code – or by the smell of the sawdust in the ring in Carmen, the rattle of the tin mugs at Minnie’s poker table in La Fanciulla del West, the snowflakes outside the garret window in La bohème.  The particular power of the verismo opera is immediacy.  Producers can do their best to shift time and place with these pieces, and some succeed, but tend to be lodged in our minds as dramas that happen in familiar settings with a particular whiff in the air.

Directness is everything.  Emotions have to be uncomplicated.  If Canio the clown doesn’t hold his head in his hands when he sings Vesti la Giubba in Pagliacci we are surprised, and almost feel a right to feel cheated.  That is what is supposed to happen.  We know it.

I think that almost everyone has had the experience of feeling stale at the opera.  Leave aside the times where a producer seems to have his head on backwards or has reached into an old cupboard for his props and ideas.  I’m talking of the feeling that somehow it is all floating into abstraction – the desire you sometimes have to strangle a particularly vacuous heroine or rewrite an absurd plot to turn it into something that hangs together.  At these moments there is nothing like a burst of verisimo, because it reminds us what opera is for.

L’arlesiana which is having its first fully staged British production in the park this season, is in that tradition.  Caruso made his name with it.  These days it’s Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur that we know, which has a much more airy-fairy plot and setting.  L’Arlesiana, first performed in the fin de siècle decade that followed the success of Cav, was a natural vehicle for Caruso, with the voice we know from the old recordings that caught a certain quality of pathos in the mere mortal battered by worldly woes.  It was an opera about real people.

If you don’t have the belief that real life can exist on that stage, how can opera mean anything?  Long before verismo became a particular style, a fashion.  It was being suggested by the great composers like Verdi.  When he took the Dumas play La Dame Aux Camélias for La traviata he was dealing with a low-life subject that was intended to present life in the raw.  This was not a pandering to social sensibilities.  And the passionate melodrama that he wore with his music never departs this world: there’s more than a consumptive cough to remind the audience that these feelings are real, not imagined.

Side by side with the verismo operas in this season, including the melodramatic Iris by Mascagni which hints at musical innovations that were to be realised by others much later.   La traviata will remind every audience of the visceral power of opera, the fact that this is neither music nor theatre but music-theatre.  The great late romantics had their own way of expressing that power: this is different.

Last year in Holland Park the peacocks did very well during parts of Tosca.  At certain moments of high drama they seemed to become highly excited, for whatever reason.  Anyway, they screeched. No-one seemed to mind (though perhaps it didn’t help parts of the orchestra).  I remember thinking during one performance that they somehow managed to make this stage even more part of the park than it is already: no proscenium arch, no distant glimpses of the action from some high balcony, no sense of being in a cocoon for the evening.  This was opera in the raw.

That directness is probably most familiar to us through Puccini.  Everyone says that if he had been born just a little later, or the movies had arrived sooner, he would have been an incomparable writer of film scores, such was his understanding of the dramatic moment and the musical ways of telling a story in flashing episodes.  No matter.  We have the operas, and they sprang in part from the verismo style which made it an obligation for a composer to understand the world beyond his window.  In the last few years of the old century, exactly a hundred years ago, it was the rage.  You couldn’t stumble into an opera house in Italy from Parma to Palermo without seeing an opera by Mascagni or Spinelli or Tasca or Giordano.  Some of the names have slipped from view now, and much of their work is unperformed for good reason, but they were the carriers of a tradition, the composers who took what they had inherited from the masters working forty or fifty years before and who tried to rework it for modern sensibilities, or, as some might put it, the modern love of the crude.  It was melodramatic lurid stuff – the life of the streets, sex and death transported from the palaces and battlefields to brothels and bars.  Or is that unfair?  There was subtlety and sensitivity too… but that rumbustious affection for crude dramatic reversals and outpourings of emotion seemed to overwhelm it all.

It’s one of the sinews of opera.  This is not milk-and-water stuff from the drawing room.  And who would be without it?  There was populism and showmanship in these operas, but there was also a belief in the essence of the art.  It has to convince.  Sometimes that can be done by the lusty roar of despair from a lover who’s discovered that he’s a common old fool.  This is a world that we know.

That is why these composers cared about big tunes, numbers that would let the score sag.  This is the theatre but with the texture of an existence that hasn’t been distilled for presentation on a little stage behind a curtain.  You expect a wronged lover to weep, and he does.  The villain will cackle, and he does.  The disaster seems inevitable, and it is.

It’s familiarity that preserves the illusion of ‘reality’.  Verismo is no more a picture of life than Wagner’s romanticism.  Sicilian peasants don’t sing like Turiddo in Cavalleria Rusticana any more than there are dwarves in the Rhine.  It is the same old trick to transport us away, just done in another fashion.  In verismo, they make you laugh and they make you cry and at the end you discover to your surprise that you’ve forgotten where you are.  ‘Reality?’  Just another piece of magic.

James Naughtie is a presenter of Today on Radio 4 and a regular presenter of opera on BBC radio and television.