The last professional Italian opera composer


The last great flowering of Italian opera – inaugurated with a bang in 1890 with the stellar success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, has led to all the works of this period being labelled, rather inappropriately, as verismo, a word literally meaning ‘truth’. The French composer Claude Debussy, writing in 1913, rather amusingly and one sidedly summed up the aesthetic of verismo thusly: ‘Inspired by scenes in the realistic cinema, the characters throw themselves at each other and appear to wrench melodies from each other’s mouths. A whole life is packed into a single act: birth, marriage, and an assassination thrown in. In these one-act operas very little music need be written for the reason that there is hardly time to hear much’. However, as Opera Holland Park audiences know, Mascagni himself soon backtracked from such wham-bam theatrics, with his symbolist opera, Iris (1898) – the first Italian opera based on a Japanese subject, and a veritable sourcebook for the more fully achieved Madama Butterfly of Puccini in 1904. The term verismo now really denotes the emphatic musical and vocal style prevalent in Italy at the turn of the last century and it does not take into account subject matter or the theatrical diversity of the opera scene. If Debussy had cared to listen to the later works of Puccini, from Butterfly and La fanciulla del West onwards, or been aware of the work of his so called ‘successor’ Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944), one wonders if he would have been complimented or horrified at the extent of his own influence on the tradition he described as ‘the Italian factory that produces nothing.’

With the exception of Puccini, the so called Giovane Scuola of composers, most notably Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano and Cilèa very soon ran out of steam, producing their most commercially successful work by around 1900. And like Verdi, two generations before him, the gaps between Puccini operas got longer and longer – six years between Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West (1910), which despite a stunningly successful premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, was not the commercial draw of its three sure-fire predecessors. Puccini himself felt that Italian opera was in crisis, no longer the vanguard, but trailing behind the competition in France and Germany, notably Debussy, whose Pelléas et Mélisande seemed to question and re-define what makes an opera and Richard Strauss, with his impudent portrayal of psychotic sexuality in Salome. In Fanciulla the vocal lines are much more declamatory, the orchestra dominates to an unprecedented extent, and there is only one detachable ‘hit’ aria. More significantly, Puccini uses a libretto that dispenses with traditional Italian libretto verse conventions, though he balked at going as far as Debussy and Strauss in Pelléas and Salome, who had dispensed with librettists altogether, setting slightly condensed versions of the entire play texts.

For the next generation of Italian opera composers, born around 1880, the most exciting new developments all originated outside Italy. Though Verdi’s operas formed the foundations of the repertory, he was regarded as a historically distant figure in a way his exact contemporary, Wagner, was not. Though we now view Puccini as Verdi’s successor, it was Mascagni who the public regarded as an Italian hero, due to the abiding perception of Cavalleria Rusticana as a work that sprang from native soil.

Tristan und Isolde, though given an isolated production in Bologna in 1888, was, after 1897 performed in many Italian opera houses up until the First World War. At La Scala, the celebrated maestro Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) championed many of the most challenging contemporary operas, notably Strauss’s Salome in 1906, just a year after its premiere, Debussy’s Pelléas in 1908, Strauss’s Elektra, then a work at the forefront of modernity, just three months after its world premiere, in 1909, and Dukas’s symbolist Ariane et Barbe-Bleue in 1911.

However the strongest influence on opera in Italy in the first decade of the 20th century was not a musician at all, but the extraordinarily flamboyant figure Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938): poet, writer, political activist and precursor of the Fascist movement. His encrusted, ornate, sometimes almost hallucinatory style rehashes the more macabre elements of Keats, Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe and the Pre- Raphaelites, in which images of death, decay and necrophilia abound. He had a short-lived obsession with the music of Wagner, having heard Tristan in 1892, and his 1894 novel Il trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death) concludes with the lovers performing their own Liebestod in a conscious emulation of Tristan and Isolde. A later novel, Il fuoco (1900) is set in Venice in 1883 (the place and time of Wagner’s actual death) and concerns a composer, Stelio Effrena, who will assert Italy’s cultural superiority by building on Wagner’s achievements to produce something even more staggering. Then, possibly as a result of a longterm love affair with the doyenne of Italian actresses, Eleanora Duse, from 1894-1910, D’Annunzio turned his attention to theatre, writing a stream of largely unsuccessful plays that Duse attempted to establish on her many international tours. They were too verbose and static to succeed, though opera composers, notably Mascagni, Montemezzi, Zandonai and Pizzetti, were drawn to their heady mix of nationalism and symbolist extravagance. Even Debussy collaborated directly with him, on the musical play, Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien (1911).

The most successful D’Annunzio opera was a setting of his 1901 play, Francesca da Rimini, by Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944). Zandonai had been groomed by Tito Ricordi, the fourth generation of the publishing dynasty who had published Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, to be Puccini’s successor. At its premiere on 19th February 1914, in Turin, the opera was regarded as a masterpiece, and the succession must have seemed secure. Zandonai was just thirty, with three previous published operas to his name, one of which, Conchita (1911) based on Pierre Louÿs’ scandalous novel Le femme et la pantin, rejected by Puccini as being too depraved, had already achieved international notoriety. Comparison with Puccini is instructive, by thirty, Puccini’s output consisted of two promising, but unsuccessful operas: Le villi, and the dramatically disastrous Edgar. Zandonai had long been singled out because of his great natural talent, and his energy and determination.   He was accepted at the age of fifteen to the Liceo Musicale Rossini, which under Mascagni had grown to be one of the nation’s most important centres of musical education, and completed the conservatory course under Mascagni (with perfect grades) in three years – it usually took nine – graduating at the early age of eighteen.   At 22, he was taken up by Arrigo Boito, introduced to Tito Ricordi, and immediately put to work on an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, which achieved modest success as Il grillo di focolare in 1908. After Conchita, Tito Ricordi negotiated with D’Annunzio for the (considerably expensive) rights to Francesca. So desperate was Zandonai to be hitched to Italy’s pre-eminent poet, he agreed to reduce his advance in order to accommodate the profligate poet. At the same time, Mascagni was negotiating with D’Annunzio for the rights to another Tristan-esque trope on forbidden love, Parisina, which premiered in 1913. The same year Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re, a work in D’Annunzio’s style appeared, and with Francesca the following season, these three Italian responses to Tristan und Isolde marked the high point of D’Annunzio’s influence on Italian opera. Both Parisina and Francesca take D’Annunzio’s words and set them verbatim, in the tradition of the Literatur-oper that were then so fashionable; but a major factor in Francesca’s success is Tito Ricordi’s skilful reduction of D’Annunzio’s verbosity and his elimination of many digressive episodes.

The story of Francesca, daughter of Guido da Polenta is based in history. She was born in 1255 and married Giovanni (Gianciotto) Malatesta, lord of Rimini, but had an affair with his brother Paolo. Gianciotto found out and murdered them both in 1285. At the time, Dante was a young man, later immortalizing the lovers in a famous passage from canto V of his Inferno. In Dante, Francesca and Paolo become lovers by reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, which features in a crucial scene in the opera. In a commentary written on the Divine Comedy almost a hundred years later, Boccaccio mentions that the marriage was arranged to end a feud between the Polenta and Malatesta families. Guido da Polenta was concerned that Francesca would reject the severely deformed Gianciotto; thus, a ruse was devised: Gianciotto’s handsome brother Paolo would perform a proxy marriage on his brother’s behalf, with the deception only discovered when Francesca arrived in Rimini. It is unclear whether there is an historical basis for the swap. D’Annunzio then added a third brother, Malatestino, a psychotic adolescent thug, who lusts after Francesca and spies on her, betraying her to her husband. He also adds to Dante’s allusions to Lancelot and Guinevere, by threading through references to the romance of Tristan, and including a scene where Francesca’s maid, Smaragdi, prepares a drink from a chalice that Francesca offers Paolo, an explicit allusion to Brangäne’s actions in the opera, Tristan und Isolde.

 There is no such explicit allusion to Tristan in the music. Though there are shades of Wagner, Zandonai’s music has a very personal stamp, and its rich alloy of Mascagni, Debussy and Richard Strauss is heady, intoxicating and individual. In common with Wagner, the acts are structured rather like symphonic poems and he is adept at sustaining very long paragraphs and scenes, with continuity of musical thought that his teacher Mascagni could never manage. Like Puccini, Strauss, Debussy and Ravel, he is a master of the orchestra, which though it never usurps the voices, has an intensity and opulence new in Italian opera. D’Annunzio’s intention of saturating his tragedy with medieval atmosphere finds an explicit musical corollary in Zandonai’s use of lute and viola pomposa (an anachronism: a five stringed viola in use in the eighteenth century). These season the score, notably at the very opening, in the exquisite modal women’s chorus that presage Francesca’s first appearance and the famous first meeting of Paolo and Francesca. Such was the impact of Zandonai’s iridescent orchestral writing on its first commentators, that a critic referred to Stile Liberty, the term coined in Italy to connote art nouveau, specifically alluding to the opulent fabrics from the iconic London store. The most celebrated orchestral passage is the concluding scene of Act One, where Francesca and Paolo, the fraudulent emissary, first see each other. Not a note is sung, leaving them to devour each other with their eyes, with Francesca offering Paolo a rose. We hear a ‘cello theme, associated with Paolo, that comes to pervade the rest of the score, garnished with medieval instruments, offstage female chorus through a haze of impressionist texture and flecks of colour. The stillness of this moment is a dramatic masterstroke after the preceding flurry of expectation and hysteria, and its self-regarding beauty is made more powerful by the fact that we, the audience, are complicit in the deception. This is really the first of four duets for the lovers, that dominate the opera, as might be expected from an Italian Tristan, the others, though more conventional in that they actually contain singing, are cunningly contrasted and chart the developing relationship and tragedy that engulfs the lovers. In Act Two, post discovery of the ruse, Francesca meets Paolo amid battle and reproach turns to mutual desperation, with the emphatic rhetoric melding into battle music. It is the extended third act duet, containing the reading of Lancelot and Guinevere, that is the kernel of the score. Zandonai preludes the encounter with an orchestral passage that delays the opening of the scene with almost unbearable suspense. The duet is buttressed by two big solos, Francesca’s Paolo, datemi pace (Paolo, give me peace) that is the closest to an extractable aria, the epigone of Zandonai’s perfumed style. Paolo’s answer Nemica ebbi la luce, amica ebbi la notte (Daylight was my enemy, the night my friend), a rare example of a passage not in the original play, but added by D’Annunzio at Zandonai’s request, does not have the Tristan overtones that the words might suggest, but is more straightforwardly Italianate, though the imagery is beautiful supported by crepuscular orchestral textures. Debussy’s influence is pervasive, with much of the connecting tissue between the big moments being tonally unstable and elusive. The final duet is a worthy climax, elements from Strauss, Debussy and Puccini crafted to a compelling whole in Zandonai’s individual synthesis. The other characters are vividly, if conventionally, portrayed. Gianciotto’s limp is as memorable a musical portrayal as King Archibaldo’s stumbling blindness in Montemezzi’s contemporaneous L’amore de tre re, and his punishing vocal tessitura emphasizes his bullying, hectoring nature. The third brother, fanciullo perverso Malatestino, is characterized by a slithery motif reminiscent of Wagner’s Ring, unstable harmony and satirical angular writing that echoes Verdi’s Iago. The blood-soaked imagery of D’Annunzio’s text, almost nauseating in the scene where Malatestino taunts Francesca with the torturing and decapitation of an offstage slave, is depicted ominously, but without the superb impudence and experiment that Strauss brought to Salome almost ten years earlier.

With the advent of World War I, Zandonai worked on a light romantic farce, La via della finestra (The Way Through the Window) for contrast, but it was not a success at its premiere in 1919. His next substantial opera, a pre-Shakespeare version Giulietta e Romeo (1922) shows how his development seems to have stopped in its tracks: its best moments are familiar from Francesca, but essentially retreads, lacking the freshness of the earlier work. I cavalieri di Ekebù (1925), based on the first Nobel literature prize winner Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berling’s Saga is an oddity in Italian opera, the frozen Scandinavian setting evoked in an original sound-world, and there are a few passages of great power, and some unexpected modernity. Alas, much of the lyricism is bland and the drama almost incoherently episodic. His later operas retreat further. By all accounts, Zandonai was an arrogant and difficult personality, short of stature, boorish, a workaholic, whose treatment of his wife could verge on the abusive, who seemed to need to belittle his artistic parents and teachers, among them Mascagni and Puccini, whom he referred in a letter as a ‘third rate craftsman’.

A noted commentator of the time, Giannotto Bastianelli dubbed Zandonai a ‘Debusstraussian and Mascagnian composer’ – highlighting the problem that as Zandonai came of age, the arbiters of operatic progress were French, German, Russian and not Italian, who lagged behind and attempted to graft superficial modernisms onto a traditional and tired form. And, apart from musical concerns, the bigger problem was the bourgeois form of opera itself that was rejected not only by progressive elements in the arts (Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1908 does not deign to mention it), but also by the paying public, beguiled by the newly burgeoning film industry. In Italy, the repertoire very soon became predominately museum driven as it is, internationally, today.

Zandonai was as charismatic a conductor of his own music, as Montemezzi and Mascagni were of theirs, and his presence helped Francesca da Rimini to be a repertoire work in Italy between the wars. It fell out of fashion, though never totally disappeared in the later twentieth century, acting as a vehicle for verismo stylists such as Maria Caniglia, Magda Olivero, Leyla Gencer and Renata Scotto, who leads a starry cast in a Metropolitan opera production from 1984 available on DVD. Today, the work seems to be doing the rounds with increasing regularity – it may be a period piece, but it transcends its remote medieval subject matter, and if it does have the twilit aura of a decadent tradition, it is a sunset glow of beguiling and individual aspect.

© Julian Grant 2010. This article appeared in the 2010 Holland Park Opera Programme.