Opera born again

Quotations of George Bernard Shaw

…I have heard the music of Cavalleria rusticana, and can certify that it is a youthfully vigorous piece of work, with abundant snatches of melody broken obstreperously off on one dramatic pretext or another. But, lively and promising as it is, it is not a whit more so than the freshest achievements of Mr Hamish McCunn and Mr Cliffe. The people who say, on the strength of it, that Verdi has found a successor and Boito a competitor, would really say anything. Mascagni has shewn nothing of the originality or distinction which would entitle him to such a comparison. If he had, I am afraid I should now be defending him against a chorus of disparagement, instead of deprecating a repetition of the laudatory extravagances which so often compel me to take the ungracious attitude of demurring to the excesses of the criticism instead of the cordial one of pointing out what is good in the composition. Already I have read things about Cavalleria rusticana which would require considerable qualification if they were applied to Die Meistersinger or Don Giovanni… (October 21st , 1891)

… an unlooked-for thing has happened. Italian opera has been born again. The extirpation of the Rossinian dynasty, which neither Mozart nor Wagner could effect, since what they offered in its place was too far above the heads of both the public and the artists, is now being accomplished with ease by Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini and Verdi. Nobody has ever greeted a performance of Tristan und Isolde with such a remark as “We shall never be able to go back to L’elisir d’amore after this,” or declare than Lucrezia was impossible after Brynhild. The things were too far apart to affect one another: as well it might be supposed that Ibsen’s plays could be accepted as a substitute for popular melodrama, or Shakespear wean people from the circus. It is only by an advance it melodrama itself or in circuses themselves that melodrama or circus of today can become unpresentable to the audiences of ten years hence.

The same thing is true of Italian opera… that is why Tristan has no more killed L’elisir than Brahms’s symphonies have killed Jullien’s British Army Quadrilles. But the moment you hear Pagliacci, you feel that it is all up with L’elisir. It is true that Leoncavallo has shewn as yet nothing comparable to the melodic inspiration of Donizetti; but the advance in serious workmanship, in elaboration of detail, and in capital expenditure on the orchestra and the stage, is enormous. There is more work in the composition of Cavalleria than in La favorita, Lucrezia, and Lucia put together, though I cannot think – perhaps this is only my own old-fashionedness – that any part of it will live as long or move the world as much as the best half-dozen numbers in those three obsolete masterpieces.

And when you come to Puccini, the composer of the latest Manon Lescaut, then indeed the ground is so transformed that you could almost think yourself in a new country. In Cavalleria and Pagliacci I can find nothing but Donizettian opera rationalized, condensed, filled in, and thoroughly brought up to date; but in Manon Lescaut the domain of Italian opera is enlarged by an annexation of German territory… (May 23rd, 1894)