Keeping it Real: Teatro Grattacielo Rescues Forgotten Verismo Operas

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In my post about operatic Genoa, I made passing reference to the grattacielo (skyscraper) there that contained a 1000-seat cinema where opera was presented from after World War II until 1992. Among the many artists who sang there were Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas. This building is usually called the first skyscraper in Italy, a nation that still has very few buildings that merit this designation. This one, and the Pirelli Tower in Milan, are my favorites.

It is fitting that a New York-based company specializing in verismo operas would have as part of its name the Italian word for skyscraper [gratta= scrape or scratch; cielo=sky]. It was founded by Ms. Duane D. Printz, a former soprano with a grande passione for the verismo repertory.

Verismo means many things to many people. It is sometimes translated as realism, but I don’t think that goes far enough. These operas are not necessarily “realistic.” As with all good opera, verismo works are of interest because they seem drawn from the human experience and, most important, they speak directly to the heart. The most famous verismo operas, such as Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, have a certain gritty realism but also contain music that is beautiful and highly pictorial. Listening to it you can envision Sicilian villages, hot-blooded passion, jealousy, and intimations of tragedy.

Verismo in opera followed fast on the literary movement of the same name. Its first great exponent was Giovanni Verga (1840-1922), whose writing about rural Sicily attracted attention in Milan when he moved there in 1872 soon after the unification of Italy. Verdi had just written Aïda, whose grand scale was the complete stylistic opposite of what verismo would be. And yet that opera had at its core the same dynamic -- a man torn between two women -- as did Verga’s novella Cavalleria Rusticana.

PucciniThere is some disagreement as to whether Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924, pictured right) is part of verismo. His many admirers see him as being above the raw emotions and naturalism of his contemporaries, to which I would respond that Tosca is, quite simply, the best verismo opera of all. Puccini was part of a group of composers, many of whom studied and lived in Milan, known as La Giovane Scuola (the Young School) who were finding their way as Verdi was withdrawing from active composition. In this group were Leoncavallo (1857-1919); Mascagni (1863-1945); Alberto Franchetti (1860-1942), whose opera about Christopher Columbus with a libretto by Luigi Illica is ready for its close-up; Francesco Cilea (1866-1950); and my favorite, Umberto Giordano (1867-1948), whose works include Andrea Chénier, Fedora, Siberia (due for a revival, please) and La Cena delle Beffe.

The second wave of verismo composers is called La Generazione dell’Ottanta (the Generation of 1880), including Franco Alfano (1875-1954), who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac, Risurrezione and the ending of Turandot after the death of Puccini; Italo Montemezzi (1875-1952), whose classic L’Amore dei Tre Re was the first opera the Teatro Grattacielo presented in 1997; Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948); Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936); Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944) whose marvelous Francesca da Rimini had a fine production at the Met in the 1980s with Renata Scotto and Plácido Domingo and is rumored to be returning in a future season; Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936); and the almost-unknown Primo Riccitelli (1880-1941).

Italophilic New York opera lovers have doted on the performances by the small company Teatro Grattacielo for years. They are inevitably fascinating and audiences gear up for a memorable night of discovery. Last season Wolf-Ferrari’s I Gioelli della Madonna drew huge cheers. Among my other cherished memories of this company are Cilea’s L’Arlesiana (New York premiere); Mascagni’s Iris; and Leoncavallo’s Zazà with an inspired Aprile Millo.

Most, though not all, veristic operas are compact and essential, many of them in one act and presented on mixed bills. The most famous combination, of course, is Cav and Pag, but tomorrow evening (May 24) the Teatro Grattacielo will create a new pairing of comedies: I Compagnacci by Riccitelli (not seen in New York since 1924) and Il Re by Giordano in its North American premiere. Agnese Riccitelli, the composer’s great-grandniece, is expected to attend. (Here are notes on these two important works.) The conductor will be Music Director David Wroe.