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Why the movies and verismo opera (like the Cav/Pag double-bill now at New York City Opera) make such good bedfellows.


Not long after the late-19th-century's literary masters abandoned lofty characters for members of the gritty underclass, Italian composers traded the long-breathed, mellifluous cantilena — the backbone of bel canto and the tuneful operas of Giuseppe Verdi — for the fire and brimstone of the declamatory verismo style. And instead of capacious old Romantic melodies, they adopted the mosaic method, building their arias with small, discontinuous phrasal blocks (listen to Santuzza's "Voi lo sapete" from Cavalleria rusticana or Canio's "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci).

For the audience, the difference between Romantic old Italian opera and upstart verismo may be expressed as a choice of weapons; the difference between elegant, exhilarating swordplay and the sudden, choppy thrust of a dagger.

This "dagger-thrust" aesthetic certainly shows a close affinity with cinematic montage — a series of visual images and/or sounds juxtaposed to create emotional impact which (not so coincidentally) arises in the culture at about the same time. Naturally, there also arose a multitude of comparisons between opera and cinema, especially between verismo opera and its obvious progeny, the Italian Neorealist cinema of the 1940s. The twin genres shared episodic structure, documentary visual style, conversational speech, and a general dogged "artlessness." (The opposite, and somewhat antagonistic vector in cinematic art would be the sweeping legato of the German director Max Ophuls's contemporaneous masterpieces — Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Earrings of Madame de ..., and Lola Montez — rightly seen as cognate with the vertiginous vocal lines of Richard Strauss.)

In presenting a production of Cavalleria rusticana andPagliacci inspired by the stark atmosphere and montage-driven technique of Italian Neorealism, New York City Opera brings verismo full circle. And this melding of the two diva-driven art forms calls up the following modest sampling of reflections on the Neorealist diva.

It is natural that the work of the two most revered Italian actresses of the last century, Eleanora Duse and Anna Magnani (star of the greatest of all Italian Neorealist pictures, Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta, or Open City), should be invoked in relation to verismo opera. Duse, scion of a family of traveling players (cut it down a peg or two and picture both Pagliacci and Federico Fellini's La Strada), created the role of Santuzza in Giovanni Verga's play Cavalleria rusticana (1884), upon which Pietro Mascagni based his opera. She invested it with both the mesmeric intimacy and the musical (read "rhythmic") expression that were the hallmarks of her legendary art, as evidenced in her single silent-film appearance (Cenere, 1916). The unmistakable "descendants" of Duse, an actress of the spoken theatre, are opera singers, ranging from Claudia Muzio to Licia Albanese to Giuletta Simionato to Teresa Stratas.

Magnani, the greatest of all Neorealist actresses, was rigorously trained in classical acting, and could not have made the impact she did in Open City and Mamma Roma (and later in Hollywood in The Rose Tattoo and The Fugitive Kind) without such a background; for veristic acting is not some "spontaneous" or improvised art, but a carefully wrought, basically Stanislavskian style, by which the "natural" is achieved through the accretion of consciously plotted moves, perfectly honed (no matter what degree of improvisational liberty granted, the actors must still hit their marks), ideal for the exigencies of the stronger element, montage. Could anyone doubt that Magnani, were she somehow given the voice of Lina Bruna-Rasa (the first great Santuzza), would have been the greatest operatic Santuzza of all time?

The difference between the singing actor and the "acting singer," in every operatic genre from Monteverdi to Montemezzi, is that the former tends to take hold of, or bear down upon the music, to bend it to her will, while the latter allows the music itself to be made manifest in more personal rather than more stylized gesture. (Though the process may not be so immediately evident to the audience, anyone can tell "operatic" acting from "realistic" acting in a few seconds.)

One of the chief virtues, then, of opera inspired by Italian Neorealism would be the cultivation of realistic acting, particularly of more natural movement than is usually encountered in the "grand opera" companies. New York City Opera, past and present, is rife with stand-out examples of this acting style: Phyllis Curtin, Ellen Faull, Frances Bible, Beverly Sills (especially in Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe and Charpentier's Louise), Norman Triegle (in Louise), Carol Neblett in La fanciulla del West, Diana Soviero, Catherine Malfitano in Street Scene, and Lauren Flanigan in Korngold's Die tote Stadt, to name but a few. Even in the commissioning and presenting of new American operas, City Opera has favored a "neo-verismo" style; such NYCO signature pieces as Weill's Street Scene, Menotti's Saint of Bleecker Street, Blitzstein's Regina, Floyd's Susannah and Of Mice and Men, and Beeson's Lizzie Borden present notable slices of American life.

Victoria de los Angeles — though not readily associated on this side of the Atlantic with verismo, apart from her definitive Mimí — once offered a typically amusing and only partly ironic dictum with respect to performing in the Italian verismo style:

    "You must hold in your hand a glass of chianti and swirl it around in the glass faster and faster until a little — just a little — spills over. That is the 'trick' of verismo. When I sang Nedda and Santuzza together at Covent Garden, I thought I was going crazy, because Zeffirelli had me upside down on a broken wagon wheel, with my head hanging over and singing the 'Ballatella'. I felt indeed that this was Cinecittà [the historic center of the Italian film industry] and not Covent Garden. It was not the same as Manon's gavotte. And for Santuzza, he had my stomach padded and made me waddle all over the stage — he saw her as pregnant, which was logical. That was perhaps spilling more chianti than I was accustomed to doing, but the results were liberating, no question."

Opera divas are trained from the outset to "assume the position": downstage, right foot extended and turned out to a degree, the pose plastique necessary for "correct" singing (i.e., command of the breath, diaphragmatic ease of production).

Throwing the voice into the mask, jutting the chin out, flashing the eyes, aiming for the gallery, they transform bel canto into "can belto," occasionally kneeling in prayer, sometimes even prone after having been thrown to the floor by a menacing baritone — or in Santuzza's case, an exasperated tenor. (Maria Jeritza seems to have been the first Tosca to be thrown to the floor by Scarpia, establishing a durable performance tradition, one decried in the following generation by the earthy and somewhat stationary Croatian soprano Zinka Milanov, particularly adamant in her views: "Look, I tell you, Tosca is a great lady — she does not go on the floor!"

Maria Callas, the greatest singing actress of her generation, also knew that making a meal of the scenery is neither good acting nor particularly accommodating to good singing. She showed a surprising "classic" restraint: her realism comprised an economy of gesture, perfect diction, and a nuanced vocal palette never before encountered in the annals of recorded sound. Her seamless fusion of text and music achieved a stark "close-up" of word and image exactly parallel to the shocking immediacy of the Italian Neorealist cinema of her close associate, Luchino Visconti.


James McCourt is author of the classic opera novel Mawrdew Czgowchwz. Its long-awaited sequel, Now Voyagers, Book I, is published this month by Turtle Point Press. His other books include The Night Sea Journey, Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake, and Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985, and he has served as a film critic for Film Comment.

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