Reality check

Article by Ash Khandekar

The idea of opera having anything to do with reality might strike many as being absurd: its far-fetched plots, hyperbolic emotions and fantastical settings seem vastly removed from most people’s day-to-day notions of real life.

Towards the end of the 19th century, however, a group of opera composers in Italy flirted briefly with the concept of making opera more raw and true-to-life, a phenomenon which came to be known as ‘verismo’ or ‘realism’. They took their cue from French naturalist authors such Emile Zola, whose novels dealt with the underbelly of life, bringing the rough-hewn language of the street and the field into the realm of art (Thomas Hardy did something similar for the English novel).

In Italy itself, a movement known as Scapigliatura, (literally meaning ‘loose living’), flourished between 1860 and 1880. It’s adherents consisted of a group of young artists and intellectuals who self-consciously renounced bourgeois society and embraced a dissolute life-style. The self-proclaimed Scapigliati, avant-garde angry young men of their day, aimed to unify the various strands of artistic endeavour – poetry, painting, and music – to create a new language of artistic expression which took ordinary life as its inspiration. They even used a catchphrase, “sta ver’!” – roughly equivalent to today’s ubiquitous “get real!”

The roots of verismo opera lie in the literary leanings of the Scapigliati. It was the Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) whose stories of peasant life, full of blood, guts and passion, inspired what is generally regarded as the first verismo opera, by Pietro Mascagni, with the deeply ironic title Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic chivalry). At the age of just 26, the composer found an earthy, direct and heartfelt musical language, which seemed perfectly suited to the sensationalist subject matter of Verga’s tale – a murderous triangle of passions, set against the backdrop of a poor Sicilian village.

In fact, ‘Cav’, as the opera has affectionately come to be known, might have never seen the light of day, were it not for Mascagni’s enterprising wife. The composer had intended to enter the work for an opera competition, organised by the leading music publisher Edoardo Sonzogno. Doubting the quality of the one-act work, he decided not to submit it and locked the manuscript away in a draw. His wife, however, secretly entered the work into the competition, and Mascagni was duly informed that he had won! The opera was an immediate international success after its premiere in Rome in 1890, and it spawned a host of imitators writing in the same emotive, punchy verismo style. Among these was Ruggero Leoncavallo’s torrid one-acter Pagliacci (or ‘Pag’ to its friends), composed two years later, a work which has become the more or less de rigueur companion piece to Cav.

Mascagni was never able to match the raging success of Cavalleria Rusticana and he once lamented “It’s a pity I wrote Cavalleria first. I was crowned before I became king”. Having staged Cav twice, Opera Holland Park has done much to reassess the reputation of Mascagni’s other major works: in 1997, the festival staged Iris, a strange blend of orientalism and verismo in which a Japanese libertine abducts a laundry girl and forces her into prostitution. The production was a huge success, revived a year later by popular demand. And in 2003, Mascagni’s delightful comedy L’Amico Fritz was staged at Holland Park, establishing the festival as an important proponent of a composer who wider contribution to the operatic canon has been ignored by other major opera houses. Look out in future for extremely rare stagings of Mascagni’s wonderfully dark, fraught exploration of madness and jealousy, Guiglielmo Ratcliff (which was the composer’s own favourite among his works), and also his take on the Lady Godiva story, Isabeau, whose medieval setting is complemented by a lush, veristic score, full of gorgeous melodies.

Verismo only had a brief existence in its purest form, but its influence has been far reaching – most notably in works of Puccini (although in fact, La bohème and Il tabarro are perhaps his only true verismo operas in the strictest sense of the term). Beyond Italy, the works of Janacek and even Benjamin Britten resonate with the influence of verismo, and the American musical has a huge debt to pay to Italian composers of the late 19th century,

Opera Holland Park has played a significant role in rehabilitating incredibly powerful and engaging operas from the verismo repertoire, many of which barely register elsewhere in the international opera season. These include Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and L’arlesiana – the festival has presented the latter in two different productions. In 2003, the piece proved a perfect vehicle for Rosalind Plowright as a superb Mama Rosa, the interfering mother who unwittingly drives her son to suicide. The opera is an example of pure, heart-wrenching verismo, and Plowright’s rendition of Rosa’s prayer, “Esser madre è un inferno” (“being a mother is hell”), was, as far as I was concerned, one of the vocal and dramatic high points of the entire opera season in Britain last year.

Other avenues, which Opera Holland Park plans to explore in future festivals, include the works of Umberto Giordano, whose Mala vita (Wicked Life) is perhaps the most notoriously low-life and decadent work to come out of the verismo movement. Giordano’s semi-veristic Andrea Chénier, based on the life of the French Revolutionary poet, has proved an enduringly popular classic, and his light, lyrical Fedora is ripe for a new wave of popularity in the opera house. Keep a look out too for Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore di tre re, a medieval Romance with shades of Pelléas et Melisande and hints of Tristan und Isolde, but with a musical language that has at its heart the gripping, full-blown emotional maelstrom that typifies verismo.

We live in an age obsessed by reality, full of those shaky, unadorned images of the world presented to us by the hand-held camera. The Dogme films of Lars von Trier and his ilk are a backlash against the glossy artifice of Hollywood; soap operas turn mundane life into compulsive entertainment; we even have something called ‘reality TV’, where the behaviour of ordinary people is placed, paradoxically, under extraordinary scrutiny in highly contrived conditions – which actually makes opera seem vividly life-like in comparison. So the that fact that Opera Holland Park has championed the verismo repertoire – operas that explore the motivations and preoccupations of ordinary people – is testimony to the fact that the festival’s artistic ethos is firmly on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Pace Raymond Gubbay, but the concept of ‘People’s Opera’ is much older than we think. Its origins can be found in the revolutionary sentiments of mid 19th-century Europe when a group of radical young writers and composers set out to show that the preoccupations and motivations of ordinary people were a fitting subject for great art.