This year, Spoleto Festival USA is presenting an Italian opera double bill featuring not-very-well-known short works by Puccini and Giordano. Both composers, whose careers started in the late 1800s, became prominent practitioners of what became known as the “Verismo,” or realistic, style.
It is impossible to speak of Italian Verismo without considering the great German opera composer Richard Wagner.
In the late 19th century, Italian composers were adapting to a new opera style that rejected classical structures and bel canto singing in favor of dynamic storytelling and a more fluid compositional approach.
The works of Wagner — those sweeping myths, elongated musical gestures, chromaticism, repeating motifs often hidden in the musical texture and theatrical drama — were gaining attention. Wagner was introducing a whole new aesthetic, a synthesis of music, poetry, drama and spectacle he called Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art).
He had arrived at this new conception of opera largely because of early professional difficulties. Wagner had been an admirer of opera composers working in the Romantic style, such as Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer, and initially wrote music in the same vein. His first opera, completed when he was 20, was called “The Fairies,” and it mimicked Weber. It was never staged in Wagner’s lifetime.
His next opera, “The Ban on Love,” written the following year, was a flop. “Rienzi,” a work in the grand opera style produced in the late 1830s, finally succeeded, thanks to support from Meyerbeer. A career was launched, but it would not prove to be remunerative for a long time.
Wagner blamed traditional opera for these early failures. He said it was superficial and silly, its production was controlled by people — Jews — with vulgar sensibilities (Meyerbeer and the composer-conductor Felix Mendelssohn, among others), and it eschewed national pride in favor of mundane entertainment. His anti-Semetism found its fullest expression in a 1850 treatise he wrote called “Jewishness in Music.”
By the 1850s, Wagner had turned to something completely different: Nordic myths and elongated compositional techniques that would become a series of operas called “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”
The Italians took notice and, coping with their own political, economic and social upheavals, began to embrace a more realistic operatic style that strived to show aspects of everyday life and convey basic truths about human struggles. The music, too, changed. Standard arias — pauses in the action that showcased the talents of singers — gave way to a more unified structure and constant musical flow.
Italian composers cast aside romantic fairy tales and stopped short of embracing Wagner’s mythical realms, preferring to focus on the hard-knock lives of characters who often were simple village-dwellers, impoverished, lovelorn and prone to make mistakes.
Composers such as Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano and Giacomo Puccini added to their frame of reference the realistic literary works of Zola, Balzac and Ibsen, as well as the emergent psychology of Sigmund Freud, who was beginning to gain attention in the late 1800s.
The late 19th century to the early 20th century in Italy was a relatively calm period but was marked by poverty and struggle. The tumult and violence of reunification had subsided and the trauma of fascism had not yet taken hold. But the economy was a wreck and mass emigration the norm, especially in the rural south.
Giordano’s 35-minute “Mese Mariano” (“The Month of Mary”) was, like Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” 25 years later, adapted from a play that was itself an adaptation of a novella (by the Neapolitan writer Salvatore di Giacomo). Carmela, a poor, guilt-ridden woman who had been forced to give up her illegitimate child, goes to the church orphanage a year later to visit the boy, unaware that he died the night before. The nuns tell her a white lie: the child is in church, she will have to return on another day. Misfortune her fate, she leaves a homemade cake she has made for the child with the sisters and, ignorant of the calamity, turns to go.
Puccini’s first opera, “Le Villi” (“The Fairies”), made its debut in 1884 and subsequently was revised for performances in 1888 and 1892 that added a second act and ballet.
Wagner’s influence is clear, for this is a late Romantic work featuring mythical beings and a story of doomed love. Puccini wrote it for a competition (he didn’t win) and his full embrace of the Verismo style was still in the future. Nevertheless, there are hints of Verismo in the outward portrayal of an active psychological inner domain.
The story: Roberto and Anna are in love, but Roberto must leave to collect an inheritance before the couple can unite. In the woods, he is seduced by sirens who cause him to forget Anna. His fiancee dies of a broken heart, and despite his contrition, he is forced to dance until he is no more.
These two short Italian operas will be offered as a double bill by Spoleto Festival USA beginning May 25 at the Sottile Theatre. The up-and-coming soprano Jennifer Rowley will star in both productions. The operas are directed by Stefano Vizioli and will be presented in Italian with English supertitles.