Back to the future

Article by Robert Thicknesse

When the 26-year-old Pietro Mascagni sat down to write the first notes of Cavalleria rusticana in 1889, the idea that the opera would kick-start an entire school of Italian opera would have struck him as laughable; for his part, he just desperately wanted the piece to be his passport out of the dusty southern town where his life and brief career were undergoing premature stagnation.

The baker’s son from the Tuscan port of Livorno had enrolled at the Milan Conservatory at the age of 19, where he befriended Puccini, five years his senior. He was expelled in his second year after consistently failing to submit his assignments and became a jobbing musician, touring Italy with a small opera company and playing double bass in a Milan theatre; later he moved to the nowhere of Cerignola, way down in Apulia, where he earned a modest crust as a piano teacher.

In 1889, violently enthused by a competition for one-act operas promoted by the publisher Sonzogno, he dashed off the 70-minute miracle of Cavalleria rusticana, based on a Sicilian story of jealousy and murder among the peasants by Giovanni Verga, in a few weeks. Then (according to one account) he got cold feet and decided to submit instead the last act of a full-length work called Guglielmo Ratcliff, a historical tragedy set in Scotland and based on a play by Heinrich Heine. Luckily his wife, behind his back, sent in the score for Cavalleria; it won first prize, and the rest is history.

Italian music and Italian opera were in considerable crisis at the end of the 19th century. The scene had been dominated to the exclusion of all others for 50 years by Giuseppe Verdi, and he was now nearly 80. Since the 1870 premiere of Aida Verdi had composed only one new opera, Otello, first performed in 1887. Our perfect hindsight tells us that Puccini was his natural successor, but nobody knew that at the time. Puccini’s first attempt at opera, Le villi, had actually been composed for Sonzogno’s first one-act competition back in 1883, where it failed to gain even an honourable mention, and his first success, Manon Lescaut, would not appear until 1893.

In a sense, then, Mascagni was writing in a void. What school should one follow, what style did an 1890 opera need to be written in? In France, Jules Massenet, Léo Delibes and Camille Saint-Saëns were exploring new avenues, and poor Georges Bizet would have been too but for his early death in 1875, shortly after writing the revolutionary Carmen. In Germany the louring figure of Richard Wagner dominated everything and called into question the very nature of opera. How should Italian opera respond to the challenges laid down by Wagner? How could the unique Italian tradition, based on the absolute supremacy of song and the human voice, assimilate these intellectual and musical challenges from beyond the Alps, and yet remain somehow itself?

From the 1860s onwards the Italian musical landscape was both confusing and increasingly barren. News from outside filtered down to Italy in the form of scare-story and rumour: the first Wagner opera ever performed there was Lohengrin (written in 1850) in Bologna in 1871, and the Ring operas would have to wait until 1883. The most promising home-grown cultural movement was the group of young Bohemians known as the Scapigliati – which literally means “dishevelled” but has overtones of the dissolute and wayward life that the group eagerly adopted under the influence of the later Parisian Bohemians, Charles Baudelaire and his companions. But as well as living la vie bohème the group had serious artistic aims; and part of their programme was to refresh Italian culture by looking beyond its borders, to the north across the Alps, for inspiration and new directions.

Musically this very disparate group was represented by the rather different talents of Amilcare Ponchielli, Alfredo Catalani – two composers familiar to Holland Park audiences through La Gioconda and La Wally – and Arrigo Boito, best known to us now as the librettist of Verdi’s last operas (and, indeed, of Gioconda) but who enjoyed a brief fame as a composer too: George Bernard Shaw was an enormous fan of his vastly ambitious Mefistofele (1868; revised 1876), though it sounds jejune to us these days. In their different ways they sought answers to this conundrum of the future of Italian opera, but all proved more or less dead ends, though the young lions of the 1890s would steal ideas from all of them.

Ponchielli’s Gioconda (1876) showed the influence of French Grand Opera, with its ballet and spectacular effects welded to a very Italianate emotionalism bordering on hysteria, and a plot which seems to gather in one place all the possible operatic events – lurid, violent and melodramatic – of decadent Romanticism. Boito’s ambition comfortably outstripped his talent as a composer and his attempt to create an opera of ideas in Mefistofele (a much more faithful attempt to dramatize Goethe’s Faust than Gounod’s version) failed; nonetheless, in its exploration of such possibilities, and Boito’s determination to get beyond the prison of lyric and musical forms that had hardly changed since the days of Rossini, and thereby create a flowing, organic, properly theatrical drama, Mefistofele had considerable influence on the younger composers. Catalani was in many ways the most interesting of these men, and had he not been dogged by appalling luck – and had he not died at the age of 39 in 1893 – he would have had much greater impact. Having worked through the considerable influence of Ponchielli in his Loreley (1880), Catalani showed in La Wally (1893) an assiduous attempt to digest the lessons of Wagner.

The biggest lesson was the orchestra. Italian opera had thrived throughout the 19th century on a scoring disparagingly referred to (by Bernard Shaw, perhaps quoting Wagner) as “a big guitar”; since singing was the be-all and end-all, the band needed to do no more than accompany voices and frame them to the best possible effect. Meanwhile, north of the Alps, the development of proper symphonic music through Mozart, Beethoven and the German romantics had reinvented the orchestra as an astonishingly sophisticated organism, not only in the sounds and effects it was capable of but also as the generator of musical and intellectual sophistication and meaning. In Wagner’s works this orchestra became an elemental force and the most important voice in the theatre, describing and commentating on the action in an incredibly layered and profound way.

It was Catalani who first understood this among the Italians, and La Wally has an orchestral score far more sophisticated than any Italian opera of its time, something truly symphonic that Verdi, always jealous of others’ talents, lost no time in disparaging: “Another step and we shall all be completely Germanised”. But Catalani was surely right and prophetic; Puccini took note and followed suit, though he was never as good an orchestrator as Catalani: Toscanini (Catalani’s greatest fan) called the Act 4 interlude in La Wally, a wracked and melancholy depiction of winter mountain wastes, “one of the greatest things in Italian music”.

So Mascagni did have a musical background more fecund than we might think to work against (though La Wally had of course yet to appear in 1889). And in spite of the enormous and instant success of Cavalleria rusticana we should remember that other operas had also been greeted extravagantly, and that the excitable Italian public was as keen to proclaim new Messiahs as the wild-eyed peasants of The Life of Brian. Nonetheless, Cavalleria was notably the right opera at the right time.

The first of its fortunate ingredients is of course the story; a story which bears more responsibility than anything Mascagni ever wrote for the label “verismo” which has been smeared over all Italian operas from 1890 until the death of Puccini. Giovanni Verga, the author of the very short story upon which Cavalleria rusticana is based, was a writer who reinvented himself and became a great one when, on the brink of middle age, he returned to his native Sicily, first of all in his fiction and subsequently in person.

The stories he wrote, and particular the collection Vita dei campi (Life in the fields) from which Cavalleria comes, consist of the sparest possible description of people and events, which unfold with the violence and inevitability of Greek tragedy – no coincidence, since Verga’s part of Sicily, the limestone plains and mountains south of Catania, in the shadow of Etna, is where the Greek influence lingers most of all in the island. Here, humans (and animals) suffer under the sun, hack at the rocky soil to eke a living, love and fight and die with a mute stoicism and acceptance that occasionally erupts into a passion and violence that seems as organic, as much a part of the earth, as impersonal as the rocks themselves. The titles are as lapidary as everything else. ‘Rustic chivalry’ is not meant ironically, or at least the irony is not directed against the protagonists.

All art, presumably, aims to capture reality and truth; the verismo label, which means no more than “realism”, was applied to Verga because of his obvious emulation of the French literary style of “naturalism” led by Emile Zola, whose route to this style was in turn influenced by realist painters such as Gustave Courbet. Fired by democratic ideals, the discoveries of Darwin and a new notion of the forces of history, naturalism believed “reality” could be arrived at simply through intent objective observation, and charted the effect on humans of the environment they live in – with Zola this is generally the urban poor, the indigent, the toiling proletariat, brutalised by the inhuman machine of industrialism.

For various reasons (largely to do with the fact that it was a young, hopeful country), the Italian version of naturalism paid less attention to the corrupting influences of oppressive institutions and turned its gaze toward the country rather than the town; but the same dictatorial positivist dogma – that all human behaviour and all natural phenomena can be explained scientifically, without recourse to metaphysics or theology – directs its philosophy. With one possible exception: the crime of passion, that mysterious eruption of chthonic forces, beyond reason, education or idealism.

And it was for the crime of passion, of course, not for any scientific view of life, that Mascagni and his librettist, his childhood friend Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti, chose for their text Cavalleria rusticana. Indeed the piece they chose was not Verga’s seven-page story but the play he had made out of it, which was already a good deal less “veristic” than the story. The resulting opera removes the remaining naturalism, with its standard bucolic choruses, its folksy interludes, its off-the-shelf piety, its reversion to the most basic division of song and linking recitative, its lack of any interest in how the characters can be construed as a product of their environment.

Actually, when you look closely, it’s hard to see exactly what Mascagni did draw from his contemporaries. His orchestra pays no attention to Wagner or Catalani. His dramaturgy ignores the experiments and developments of Boito and even Verdi. In fact, with its single-minded addiction to song and melody it harks back more to Donizetti and Bellini than anything else; until things go wrong we could be in the timeless Arcadia of L’elisir d’amore.

But things do go wrong, spectacularly, and it is partly to this we must attribute Cavalleria’s instant, huge success. The decadence of aristocratic Romantic ideals, the eager feeding of the voracious tastes of the semi-educated, had bred a fashion for the sort of lurid sensationalism exploited by Ponchielli in La Gioconda and later indulged with gusto by Giacomo Puccini and the other members of the giovane scuola (a better name than “verismo”, though no more indicative of a genuine “school”) of composers.

There is more to Cavalleria than that, of course. Whatever else you feel about it, you can’t criticise its sincerity and conviction. Mascagni throws himself into it with wild, untrammelled fervour; those singing lines and forthright orchestration may not be terrifically subtle, but they are terrifically effective, and embody the new ideal of passion-through-melody (replacing the more polite Donizettian emotion and pathos) with fiery purpose. Boundless lyricism, searing intensity, a level of emotional engagement whose temperature rarely falls below boiling point – these, allied to a story of brutal simplicity, simply told and set off against a scene of pastoral idyll, are the template for a new kind of opera, one no more realistic than any that had gone before, but perfectly adapted to the times.