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Verismo: Opera arias

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Every age strives to disrupt and discredit its artistic status quo while attempting to carve out for itself a new sense of direction. In the world of late 19th century Italian opera, this effort took the form of verismo for which Pietro Mascagni and Ruggiero Leoncavallo would be the standard-bearers. A dozen other well-known operas enabled the movement to take root, not to mention a host of lesser known works.

The road to veristic opera leads back to French writer Émile Zola (1840-1902). Zola depicted in his novels the adversity of unfortunate souls in society: a laundress in L’Assommoir, a courtesan in Nana, peasants in La Terre, etc. Zola’s potent réa-lisme, which he described as showing his readers “a slice of life,” was carried over into late 19th-century Italian literature, particularly by two Sicilian writers, Giovanni Verga and Luigi Capuana. It was Verga’s one-act play Cavalleria rusticana (adapted in 1884 from the same author’s short story) that provided Mascagni with the fuse to ignite the operatic world with verismo.

Cavalleria rusticana opened in Rome in May 1890, and for the next two decades, this work steered the course of Italian opera. Composers from Alfano to Zandonai — Puccini, Leoncavallo, Giordano and Cilea among them — strongly contributed to the genre. Veris-mo-style operas were written in other countries as well (Massenet’s La Navarraise in France, d’Albert’s Tiefland in Germany, Janácek’s Jenufa in Czechoslovakia and Menotti’s contemporary work The Consul in America), but the Italian repertory remains the core of the verismo movement. Such was the preoccupation with verismo that when Zola visited Italy in the 1890’s, he was hailed as the father of Italy’s new operatic tradition.

All the arias on Diana Soviero’s program are Italian. Most are from operas that remain popular favorites, but included are also a few slightly obscure ones that have been given new birth, and deservedly at that. The Italian word vero means “truth.” As applied to late 19th-century Italian opera, it concerns truth to life as depicted on the stage, as opposed to the exaggerated gestures of romanticism and the grandeur and sentimentality of past eras. “So long as horses remained ‘steeds,’ church bells ‘sacred bronzes,’ and women, instead of being married, were ‘conducted to the pronubial altar,’ everyday reality was kept at a distance,” notes Julian Budden. “Bringing opera up to date and down to earth” is Peter Conrad’s succinct summary of the verismo movement.

Verismo operas were populated with characters from normal life; they spoke ordinary language, were driven by spontaneous and emotional behavior, and often lived in poor, humble surroundings. Volatile personalities, sensationalism, and the depiction of local customs were further hallmarks of verismo. “The action of the veristic operas takes place as in an atmosphere from which the nitrogen has been withdrawn, so that everything burns with a fierce, unnatural flame,” writes Donald Grout in his Short History of Opera.

The age of verismo was intense but short-lived. Even by the year in which its first operatic standard-bearer appeared (Cavalleria rusticana in 1890), new literary movements were already in the ascendant, among them Symbolism and Expressionism. The heyday of operatic verismo lasted some twenty years; indeed, every opera represented on this recording except one (Suor Angelica, 1918) was written between 1890 and 1907, and most date from the single decade of the 1890’s. Verismo flared across the operatic sky like a meteor — a sensational phenomenon that soon expired but left in its wake some of the most fascinating treasures in the repertory.

© Robert Markow

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