Mining the verismo vein

Article by George Hall

All artistic experiences take us somewhere, even if we don’t necessarily move physically – as when reading a book or looking at a painting. But opera’s journeys almost always involve travelling: it’s essentially a live experience, requiring a theatrical set-up and substantial musical forces – solo singers, a chorus, and an orchestra – joined to a visual side in a production comprising acting, scenery and costumes.

But during Opera Holland Park’s 18 years of existence, the audience’s journey has also regularly taken us into an unfamiliar artistic area. Though each summer’s programme invariably contains some of the best known and most familiar titles of all, the festival’s attendees are usually confronted in addition with rare pieces from a specific period of Italian opera known as verismo, and closely connected to the wider ‘realist’ movement in literature and the other arts.

Though a much-used term, verismo only loosely binds together many of the Italian works of the period who’s most notable creative genius was Giacomo Puccini. Several of his operas are certainly not ‘realistic’ in any literal sense – the dark oriental fairy-tale Turandot, for instance, or the tragic 18th-century romance of Manon Lescaut, or his Giselle-like first opera, Le villi. But there are threads of naturalism and everyday experience that run through most of them, from the young artists messing around in a communal flat in La Boheme, to Lieutenant Pinkerton offering Consul Sharpless a choice of drinks in Madama Butterfly, to barge-owner Michele lighting his pipe with a match and thus inadvertently giving the signal for his wife Giorgetta’s lover to show up in the short, sharp shocker Il tabarro.

It was verismo in its purest form, after all, that put Puccini’s generation – rival successors to the long-lived and giant figure of Verdi, collectively known as the giovane scuola or ‘young school’ – on the map in the first place, with Puccini’s former flatmate Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, premiered in Rome in 1890; its extraordinary success changed operatic history. Two years later, Puccini and Mascagni’s colleague Ruggero Leoncavallo (who had worked as a writer on the libretto for Manon Lescaut before leaving the project) followed up with Pagliacci, which cemented the notion of verismo in the public consciousness.

Puccini’s La Boheme (1896) moves away from a contemporary Italian setting, taking place amongst the impecunious of Paris around 1830, but in other respects it is about as close to the notion of slice-of-life theatre (or what another generation would call ‘kitchen-sink’ drama) as they come; significantly, Leoncavallo also planned and brought out his own opera based on the same subject the year after Puccini’s, in 1897; it caused a permanent rift between the two one-time friends and has remained in the shadow of Puccini’s masterpiece ever since.

Other composers of the period explored similar territory, sometimes producing a permanently successful (or at least celebrated) piece: Umberto Giordano with his French revolutionary epic Andrea Chenier (1896), about a real-life poet who met his end at the guillotine; Francesco Cilea with the backstage badinage and heartache of his Adriana Lecouvreur (1902), centred on the love-life and death of a real-life actress (real-life heroes and heroines were natural verismo territory). Puccini’s fellow-Luccan Alfredo Catalani died young, before his career had really taken off, but his 1892 La Wally – known to millions who have never experienced the whole opera for its famous soprano aria ‘Ebben? Ne andro lontana’ – showed his mastery.

Beyond the Puccinian repertory, however, many of these pieces and others produced by the same artistic movement are little staged; Opera Holland Park’s audiences have had, to an extent, to take them on trust. If you look at the repertory of London’s other two major companies, the Royal Opera and English National Opera, you can see what I mean. Until they revived it in 2010, the Royal Opera had last staged Adriana Lecouvreur in 1906. Holland Park beat them to it, playing Cilea’s best known score in 2002, and they are offering it again this summer; but ENO and its predecessors Sadler’s Wells Opera and The Old Vic have never staged Cilea’s most famous score at all. Similarly Mascagni’s Iris — which ENO has also never attempted — was the first of these rarities Opera Holland Park invited its audiences to experience, back in 1997 and again the following year; but its last Covent Garden outing was nearly eight decades earlier, in 1919.

One could draw up similar statistics for many of the pieces from this fascinating period of Italian opera that Holland Park has explored over its existence, including such titles as Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz and Zanetto, Cilea’s L’arlesiana, Montemezzi’s L’amore di tre re, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and Wolf-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna. Popular when they were first produced a century or so ago, these works have either never been staged by the major UK companies, or at least not for many decades; they tended to fall out of fashion with changes of taste (often in the aftermath of World War I), until belatedly finding renewed life on the Holland Park stage. It’s a remarkable phenomenon that has helped define the company as a unique enterprise in the operatic culture of the country as a whole.

That Holland Park’s audiences have responded so positively to such unusual repertoire choices is a testament not only to their curiosity – something they are rarely given sufficient credit for – but also to their trust in the company’s ability to dig up something worthwhile from a largely forgotten era. Not every opera produced in Italy between, say, 1880 and 1920 will be a lost masterpiece, but there are enough interesting pieces to keep the company busy mining this particular vein, I would guess, for many seasons to come. Meanwhile Holland Park has other repertoire strands to explore, having offered audiences works by Janacek and Tchaikovsky, for instance, that have taken them well beyond the most familiar titles of the standard repertory.

There’s an educational aspect to this, of course — if that’s not too worthy a term for increasing awareness and enjoyment of the operatic experience in the realms of the relatively unknown. Such initiatives have a long tradition in British cultural life, and one we should all be proud of. Between the wars Lilian Baylis ran the Old Vic and later Sadler’s Wells on similarly ambitious lines, offering non-West End audiences Shakespeare, opera and ballet, and in the process founding the companies that would become today’s Royal National Theatre, English National Opera and the Royal Ballet.

The BBC Proms can pride itself on having made a worldwide reputation on closely related principles. Founded in 1895 at Queen’s Hall in Langham Place near Oxford Circus (a venue that no longer exists; the Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall after it was bombed), they were initially conducted by Sir Henry Wood and managed by Robert Newman, who stated as his aim, ‘I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music’. It’s a wider ambition, of course, but not a dissimilar approach: a summer festival of classical music at popular prices and aimed at drawing in the widest possible audience.

There’s something appropriate about choosing the verismo movement as the focus of such endeavours. By the eighteenth century, Italian opera was reaching large audiences not only throughout the peninsular itself but also in the rest of Europe, and as time went such audiences became increasingly diverse. But the subject matter of even the early romantic operas – or at least the serious ones — tended to remain high-flown.

Following the example of the mid-19th-century French novelist Emile Zola, writers in Italy and elsewhere began to explore more lowly characters and mundane situations. One of them, Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), penned a collection of stories called Vita dei campi (‘Life in the Fields’), about the lives of the Sicilian poor he had grown up amongst. It contained a short story called Cavalleria rusticana, a tale of overwhelming emotions and violent reactions played out amongst the sort of ordinary everyday people hitherto largely ignored in artistic creations, opera included. He eventually turned the story into a play for the famous Italian actress Eleonora Duse (a long-term associate of composer and librettist Arrigo Boito), whose performance as Santuzza made it into a major success. When Mascagni turned it into an opera, its success redoubled; the opera marked a revolution in artistic taste – initially in Italy but later more widely. Not every opera produced in the country over the following decades should be called verismo, as we have seen, but some of them were profoundly influenced by the movement – including Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, which many consider his finest achievement and which, with its cast of poor miners, desperate bandits and saloon-owners, represents the genre close to its purest form. Such pieces were intended by their composers to appeal to the widest possible public without compromising artistic integrity. And as Opera Holland Park has amply demonstrated over the years, they still can.

George Hall writes widely on classical music and especially opera, including for The Guardian, The Stage and Opera magazine. He is also a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Music and the Penguin Opera Guide