La Morte de Verismo: Verismo is dead. In recent years, this heartfelt cry has been the subject of intense discussion on opera mailing lists, in opera groups on Facebook and during emotional conversations and discussions among many fans of the genre. But is it true? Is verismo dead?
People say verismo and think: Mascagni and Leoncavallo. Rightly so? Cavalleria Rusticana and certainly Pagliacci are among the most popular operas ever. The most tragic as well. But that is not only because of their content. They are about passion, love, jealousy, revenge and murder, but that and also the rough realism does not make them more violent than Carmen. And we have also experienced ‘ordinary people’ and ‘present time’ in operas before, in La Traviata for example.
No, what actually makes these operas so tragic is the fate of their creators. Both works caused a huge sensation and left their creators with a blockbuster they could never equal again. Not that they composed nothing else or that the quality of their later operas leaves much to be desired. On the contrary. La Bohème by Leoncavallo or L’Amico Fritz by Mascagni, for example, are true masterpieces.
The ‘why’ is difficult to answer, although many explanations have been given. Mascagni would not have remained true to his style and started to compose in the romantic style again. But that is not true: Cavalleria contains many passages that are just as lyrical as L’Amico Fritz, for example, and Cavalleria is no more dramatic than lets say Iris.
“Crowned before I became king”, Mascagni sarcastically remarked (‘Cavalleria’ was his first opera, composed when he was 26 years old), and that goes for Leoncavallo as well. Whatever the cause may be, both composers have, inseparably linked, gone down in history as composers of only one opera.
The same thing happened to their contemporaries and/or contemporaries of style (they preferred to call themselves ‘La Giovane Scuola’ – ‘The Young School’). The few people who have heard of Giordano, Catalani, Franchetti or Cilea probably cannot name more than one opera. Or even worse: one aria.
It is difficult to say what caused this, and is worth exploring, but the fact is that after the thirties and forties (and also the early fifties) the genre suddenly became ‘not done’. Intellectuals considered the genre as beneath themselves and the sobs in the aria ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Pagliacci became the example of bad taste.
Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci have always remained popular with audiences, though. The real lovers have never taken any notice of this intellectual criticism (especially the eighties and nineties of the last century were ruthless for verismo).
The premiere of Cavalleria Rusticana took place in 1890, three years after Otello and three years before Falstaff by Verdi. The leading roles were sung by Gemma Bellincioni as Santuzza and her husband Roberto Stagno as Turiddu.
Thanks to Edison and his invention we know how the first Santuzza sounded, because in 1903 Bellincioni recorded ‘Voi lo sapete, o mamma’ (SRO 818-2). What do we hear? Bellincioni has a light soprano, with an easy height, but with a dramatic core. It seems that she had had little success with the then standard repertoire, but her presence, her acting and interpretation made her very suitable for the new operas composed in the verist style.
Bellincioni sings ‘Voi lo sapete o mamma’:
How does a perfect Santuzza sound? You have to have power, that is clear. You also have to be able to act, especially with your voice, because few roles have so much duality in them: her eternal nagging gets on your nerves and you get tired of it, but at the same time she is pitiful and you have sympathy for her. As in real life, and that real life must also be reflected in the interpretation, which cannot be achieved by just singing beautifully.
That’s why the greatest singing actresses have recorded the best Santuzzas. You notice that too when looking at the list of Santuzzas: Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, Zinka Milanov, Carla Gavazzi, Eileen Farrell, Giulietta Simionato, Maria Callas, Elena Souliotis, Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto. And Lina Bruna Rasa of course, the beloved Santuzza of Mascagni.
In 1940 the 50th anniversary of Cavalleria was celebrated with special performances at La Scala, after which the whole cast went into the studio to make a recording of it. The line-up was the best possible, with next to Lina Bruna Rasa, Benjamino Gigli as Turiddu, Gino Becchi as Alfio and Giulietta Simionato as Mamma Lucia (strangely enough Simionato often sang the role of Santuzza afterwards).
The first thing that stands out in Mascagni’s conducting is the emphasis he places on lyricism and a lilting tone , which makes the melodic lines stand out more clearly. On no other recording does the prelude sound so idyllic, and nothing better indicates the drama that is about to take place, which contrasts sharply with the Santuzza – Turiddu duet. It makes the drama more poignant, more intense.
Gigli was one of the best Turiddu’s in history: seductive and frivolous, and (sorry, but it is true) only in Domingo did he get a worthy competitor. Because neither Giuseppe di Stefano (too light), nor Jussi Björling (too nice), nor Mario del Monaco (too roaring), nor José Carreras (although he comes close) could give Turiddu a hint of three-dimensionality.
Gigli as Turiddu. Recording from 1927:
At the time of the recording Bruna Rasa was 33 years old and since a few years she suffered from terrible depressions. The first symptoms of a mental illness had also manifested themselves and she had trouble remembering the text. Yet there was no question that anyone else would sing that role, and Mascagni helped her as much as he could.
Lina Bruna Raisa sings’ Voi la sapette o mamma’:
The original recording appeared on 2 CDs on EMI which were filled up with arias from other Mascagni operas sung by Gigli. Unfortunately on the re-release on Naxos (8110714-15) some orchestral preludes and intermezzi from different operas, all performed by the Berlin State Opera Orchestra conducted by Mascagni are added instead. Both EMI and Naxos start with a short speech by the composer.
Below the complete opera, conducted by the composer:
The Hague 1938
Two years earlier, in 1938, the widow of Maurice De Hondt brought Mascagni and his opera to The Hague. The performance of 7 November was recorded live and was released on CD (Bongiovanni BG 1050-2 ).
The live recording sounds pretty good, especially for its age, and the stage sounds (including a very audible prompter) and the coughing audience are not really disturbing. The tempi are a bit faster than on the Naxos recording, but still a little on the slow side.
The line-up is slightly less spectacular than two years later, but still very good. Antonio Melandri is a baritone Turiddu and Alfro Poli gives excellent shape to Alfio. Of course Mascagni had brought Bruna Rasa, and what she shows here surpasses everything: so intense, so desperate, so heartbreaking, like no other Santuzza ever sounded. Because of her interpretation alone, this special document is invaluable.
This part movie/part studio recording of Franco Zefirelli (DG 0734033) could have been the ultimate adaptation if it had not been for Elena Obraztsova who plays the role of Santuzza. That she is a bit older and unattractive – ok, that fits the story. But her voice is lumpy, sharp and her chest register is painful to the ears. She also suffers from over acting which makes her an extremely unsympathetic Santuzza.
One can’t blame Turiddu (Domingo at his best) for preferring to look at Lola (nice Axelle Gall). Just look at his eyes and his corners of the mouth, which speak volumes! For the rest nothing but praise for this recording, which (how could it be otherwise?) is coupled with ‘Pagliacci’, with again Domingo in top form and an excellently acted Nedda by Teresa Stratas.
In 1956 in the Rai studios one of the most beautiful Cavallerias was recorded, with Carla Gavazzi, Mario Ortica and Giuseppe Valdenga.
This recording can now be found on Youtube:
What many people don’t know: there are actually two (and even three if you include La Mala Pasqua by a certain Stanislao Gastaldon from 1888) Cavalleria Rusticana’s. Domenico Monleone (1875 – 1942), a composer not unknown at the time, also used the story of Giovanni Verga for his one-acter, which his brother Giovanni converted into a libretto.
Sonzogno, Mascagni’s publisher, accused Monleone of plagiarism (and indeed: careful study shows that Monleone’s libretto is closer to Mascagni than to Verga’s original story), after which the opera was not performed anywhere for a long time.
Until 1907, when Maurice de Hondt brought Monleone to Amsterdam, where his opera had its belated premiere. Coupled with … yes! Cavalleria Rusticana.
Both works were directed by their composers: it apparently did not bother Mascagni that his colleague had ‘borrowed’ his libretto from him.